The English Wife presents a unique reviewing challenge. A brilliant murder mystery, it’s difficult to review without spoiling its manysecrets. And because much of the terrible pleasure of this novel lies in the painstakingly slow revelation of these secrets, I can only very generally touch on the events at its heart. But The English Wife is also a bittersweet love story – actually, two – and one of these (the relationship between married couple Bayard and Annabelle Duyvil) transcends simple categorization. Told in chapters that alternate between Before (the murder) and After, and detailing/juggling the lives of its principal and pivotal secondary characters, The English Wifesucks you in and never lets go until the killer – and the truth – are revealed. Ms. Willig kept this reader guessing and reassessing chapter after chapter… and as a mystery/ thriller, the novel is a success. Suspenseful, clever and surprising, The English Wife kept me on tenterhooks from start to finish.
Unfortunately, it’s less successful as an historical romance; Ms. Willig’s attempt to end the novel with a happily ever feels oddly inappropriate and distracting, and ultimately, detracts from the overall effect of the story.
Genevieve (“Jane”) Van Duyvil is attending a costumed Twelfth Night ball at the home of her brother Bayard and his beautiful wife Annabelle. Since the couple’s whirlwind romance in London, they have largely kept to themselves, opting not to live close to the family matriarch in New York City, and reside instead with their three year old twins at Illyria, their rural estate on the banks of the Hudson River. Rumors about the marriage are rampant – that Annabelle is cuckolding Bay with a live-in architect; that they’re unhappy together; that Bay enjoys a much too cozy relationship with his married cousin Anne; that Annabelle is an imposter – so despite the remote location, the party has drawn the curious crème de la crème of New York Knickerbocker society. Ever an observer, Jane finds herself watching and listening as guests cattily amuses themselves discussing and denigrating their (absent) hosts. Jane is dismissive of the rumors about Bay and Annabelle – she’s seen first hand how devoted the pair are to each other, but she remains quietly on the sidelines, ignored and dismissed by society and her family.
Jane’s quiet observations are interrupted when Anne asks if she knows where Bay and Annabelle have disappeared to. The dancing is about to begin, the pair are nowhere to be found, and Mrs. Van Duyvil has sent Anne to retrieve them. After a brief conversation, Jane accompanies Anne outside to see if Bay might be overseeing the set-up in the garden for entertainments after the dancing. Frozen and cold, Jane is just about to turn back when Anne shouts out in panic. Turning, Jane thinks she glimpses Annabelle floating in the river… but in the blink of an eye she’s gone; turning towards Anne, Jane spots Bay on the ground with a knife in his chest. Dropping quickly to her knees next to him, she realizes he’s still alive and shouts for Anne to get help. But moments after he appears to gasp out a name – George – he dies in her arms.
From here on out, The English Wife unfolds in alternating chapters that detail, via Jane’s point of view, the newspapers rapacious appetite for the scandalous story – Was it murder? Where is Annabelle? Did Bay kill her?
Did she kill him? – and the evolution of the relationship between Bay and Annabelle before his murder and her disappearance. Ms. Willig painstakingly parcels out surprise after surprise in chapters detailing their complex relationship, and after the murder, as Jane tries to uncover the truth about what happened to her brother. Convinced Bay loved Annabelle and couldn’t have killed her, Jane forms an unlikely partnership with a reporter who inveigles himself into the Van Duyvil home. But as Jane discovers secrets about Bay and Annabelle – and reporter James Burke – she begins to doubt everything she thought she knew.
Reader, I can’t really tell you much about Annabelle and Bay before or after their marriage (#sorrynotsorry) – because doing so will spoil too much of the story. Deeply in love – but scarred in different ways and burdened with secrets – Annabelle and Bay turn to each other for salvation. But salvation, though lovely (it is! I loved them!), is temporary. And for Annabelle, the cost is steep and devastating. My heart ached as Ms. Willig slowly and inextricably revealed the secrets between this pair. The Twelfth Night ball represents a new, bittersweet beginning for them both but… well, I’ve already said too much. Suffice it to say, the relationship between Bay and Annabelle evolves differently than I hoped, but was profoundly moving nonetheless.
Meanwhile, Jane Duyvil tries to find her brother’s killer. Oppressed and repressed by her overbearing hurtful mother, Jane has always been a wallflower, accepting crumbs of attention from her family and society. Bay was similarly disinterested in her – preferring to give his time and affections (and more?) to their wild, disobedient cousin Anne; nevertheless, Jane believed Bay loved Annabelle and couldn’t have killed her. Determined to ferret out the truth, she strikes a deal with James Burke. She’ll share what she knows of the murder if he will help her uncover what really happened that night. I liked their ‘detective’ partnership, and the sense of purpose and identity it gives Jane. She finally sets herself apart from her mother and begins to live life on her own terms searching for her brother’s killer… but I wish Ms. Willig had devoted more time to Jane after her brother’s murder. I still don’t feel like I know her all that well.
As the novel slowly gathers momentum, we discover no one – and nothing – are quite as they appeared at the start. Ms. Willig does a terrific job blurring the line between ‘good’ guy and ‘bad’ guy, and deftly balances complex and conflicting truths in the lives of Jane, Bay and Annabelle. I still can’t decide who I like and disliked in this story, and I’m hopelessly conflicted about Bay. As I read, I kept thinking of the phrase: O, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!
I loved and loathed The English Wife in equal measure. As usual, Ms. Willig’s writing is magnificent. She perfectly captures the period, setting, her primary and secondary characters – I can easily see it all in my minds eye – and the whodunit at its core is engrossing. I even felt the coldness of its bleak, wintry setting as I shivered through the pages. But it’s also a bittersweet and heartbreaking love story and I ached reading it. Darkly moving, tinged with melancholy, The English Wife is not quite what you expect, but it stays with you long after its last page.