Publication: St.Martins Press (5th Jan 2021) ISBN: 1250245494
Jane Eyre is my favourite classic novel, and coming very close is Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – a retelling of the Jane Eyre themes relocated to Monte Carlo and large stately home in Cornwall in the 1930s. Over the years I’ve seen plays and ballets of the book, the inevitable film and tv adaptations ( Michael Fassbender as Mr Rochester – be still my beating heart). I love Jean Rhys’s novel Wide Sargasso Sea which is written as a prequel to Jane Eyre, telling the story of Rochester and Antoinette ‘Bertha’ Mason and their whirlwind marriage in the West Indies. The book has something new to say to every generation it seems and it is remarkable successful in most incarnations. So I jumped at the chance to read Rachel Hawkin’s novel The Wife Upstairs, where the author relocates Jane to the southern states of America and updates it to the present day. It’s clear that the author loves the original novel and knows it well. Here she has created an ambitious retelling which is Jane Eyre as a compelling murder-mystery, via ‘The Real Housewives of Alabama’.
Jane lives in the bad end of a Southern town, with slimy landlord John who despite being youth worker at his local church, isn’t above spying, leering and even a touch of blackmail. Jane’s background is chequered, but we know she aged out of the care system and has been going it alone with no family since. She ended up lodging with John out of desperation when she finds herself with nowhere to go. She creates a job walking the dogs of the wealthy residents of nearby Thornfield Estates – a gated community where the wives are far too busy with their beauty regimen, lunches and charity work to walk their own dogs. Jane envies their well-kept hair, their nails, their stunning homes and enviable lifestyles. What would she look like, if she had nothing to do all day but go the gym and spa?
It’s on one of her dog walks that she meets the widowed Mr Rochester. He is a self- made millionaire, with his own building contracting business, but it is his wife’s money that has really helped him climb to the status of his neighbours. Bea Rochester, was the creator and director of interiors catalogue business Southern Manors – a play on the famed hospitality and etiquette of the Southern states. Bea died just over a year ago in a boating accident with her best friend Blanche. Her way with interiors can be seen in the marital home, but also in most fashionable homes on the estate. Jane is surprised at how well she and Ed get along, and when he buys his own setter puppy for her to walk she takes it as a sign he wants her around. Very quickly, their easy chit chats over coffee become more. Jane describes herself as normal and ordinary, even plain, whereas Bea was a beauty – why would he want to go out with her? They keep their fledgling romance a secret and for a while Jane enjoys listening to the neighbourhood women wondering if Ed is dating, and who the mystery woman is. Just occasionally though, she gets the odd hint that everything wasn’t what it seemed with Bea and her friend Blanche who died with her. Together since college, to hear most of the women talk the two were like two happy peas in a pod. It’s only Eddie, and sometimes Blanche’s husband (drowning himself in drink) that hint otherwise – one suggestion being that Bea owes all she knows to Blanche and that a rivalry existed between them.
As Jane and Ed’s relationship becomes more serious and goes public, each one is keeping their own secrets. Jane doesn’t want Ed to know about where she’s lived with John so has left all her belongings behind. It turns out that John once shared a foster home with Jane and he knows a little more about her than she would like. Blanche’s husband Tripp seems devastated by his wife’s death, often disheveled and definitely drinking so much that Jane is on edge around him. Yet Ed doesn’t really talk about his late wife at all, and Jane can’t understand why. She’s seen pictures and they look like the perfect couple; Blanche was so beautiful and such a great businesswoman. I was starting to suspect that, just as her business was all about appearances, so was their marriage. Plus her body has never been found, Jane ponders over this and thinks that must surely disturb him? She sometimes has the crazy thought that Blanche isn’t really dead. When Ed secretly follows Jane back to her former flat and meets John, she is sure their relationship will be over. However, Ed seems unfazed by the grotty surroundings and knows just what to do to deal with John. It’s almost as if he’s more at home with Jane and the type of background she’s struggling to get away from. Maybe Jane is a better fit for for Ed, than his first wife was? Yet she doesn’t feel fully secure – even though she has access to the money, lives in the house and no longer walks dogs. Now the women who employed her to walk their dogs are having to get used to her in their social circle. They have been very gracious, but they do keep asking whether Ed will put a ring on it.
Further on, besides the main narrative where Ed does put a ring on it, we get a first person narrative from Bea with all the intricacies of her college life including meeting Blanche. This brought even more questions into my mind. If this was more of a ‘frenemy’ situation then is there more to their deaths than meets the eye? Bea reads like someone with a personality disorder, without a core sense of self and attaching herself to people she admires in order to emulate them. This reveal reminded me of Gone Girl, and from here the story really does twist and turn. The author plotted this well and really built the tension. It’s as if Jane has unknowingly stepped into a trap that is slowly and inexorably closing around her, until there’s no escape. The closer she gets to the truth of all the relationships here, the more danger she finds herself in. By this point I was constantly reading to see how this would end. Was Bea murdered and by whom? What was Blanche’s part in this tragedy? Will Ed’s secrets finally be revealed and what will he do to keep them hidden? This is a fast addictive read that will keep you guessing to the very end.