"The Wife Upstairs" By: Rachel Hawkins
“The Wife Upstairs”
Author: Rachel Hawkins
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Price: $27.99 (Hardcover)
Classic British Novel Re-envisioned in Mountain Brook Is Full of Surprises
Two is a coincidence. Three we might call a movement.
In the last few years three Alabama novelists have struck out in new directions with really astonishing results.
Patti Callahan Henry, famous for women’s novels often set at the beach, took a chance and produced the very fine “Becoming Mrs. Lewis,” the story of the American poet who fell in love with and married the English writer C. S. Lewis.
Cassandra King Conroy, who had written several successful domestic novels for women of a certain age, often going through a divorce and helped out by a small group of faithful friends, published “Moonrise,” an inspired rewrite of Daphne DuMaurier’s “Rebecca,” setting it in Highlands, North Carolina.
Now Rachel Hawkins, best-selling author of eleven books for children, has produced her first “adult” novel, a revisioning of “Jane Eyre” set in Mountain Brook.
And it really is an adult novel. Not so much because of the sexuality and some scenes of violence, although there is lots of that, but because of the darkness, the cynicism, the depiction of life in Mountain Brook as shallow, pretentious, hypocritical, ostentatious, and Hobbesian in its genteel, country club, tooth-and-claw, struggle of all against all.
Our heroine, Jane, nobody from Phoenix, Arizona, raised we learn in foster homes, is not educated enough or polished enough to be a governess. She is a dog walker in Thornfield Estates, a new, perfectly groomed section of Mountain Brook.
The wives of Thornfield Estates, essentially female drones with no domestic chores, should walk their own dogs. They go to expensive spas to get exercise. But having a dog walker looks stylish and, Jane tells us, in Mountain Brook, appearance is everything—expensive hair coloring, nails, shopping for their pastel or floral clothes. Whatever they know is IN fashion.
Jane is in and out of these big houses several times a week and often takes a moment to steal something to pay the rent on her hovel in Center Point.
I thought it clever that she takes ONE diamond hoop earring, not both. The lady figures she must have lost one somewhere—at a fancy restaurant or the country club.
The women are awful, but Jane is just as scornful of the men.
In their “casual uniform of polo shirts and khakis, [they] have a sort of softness to them. Weak chins and bellies that sag slightly over their expensive leather belts.”
But not handsome, masculine Eddie Rochester, who smiles with teeth that seem real, not veneers. Jane falls at once.
Eddie, like Tripp Ingraham, the neighborhood drunk, was recently widowed when their wives, Bea and Blanche, out in a boat on Lake Martin, disappeared, presumed drowned, neither body recovered.
Eddie has inherited Southern Manors, Bea’s hugely successful company selling clothes, gifts, stylish home décor of every kind, all that was needed to make every home look alike—as if from a spread in “Southern Living.”
Like the charming Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre,” Eddie has a secret. The title gives a hint.
He is a cunning fraud, but so is everybody else, including Jane, who has a wicked secret of her own.
Reviews like this MUST not reveal too much. I won’t. I want the reader to have the delights I had in the surprising revelations, the ingenious plot turns, as the novel gains momentum and heads for its climax.
In an interview, Rachel Hawkins suggested she might never get invited to any country club functions in Mountain Brook. Perhaps, but she could have a pleasant lunch with Katherine Clark, author of her Mountain Brook tetralogy which skewered the pretenses of the little kingdom. While Hawkins placed many of the men, especially the lawyers, in the genus “southernus drunkus,” Clark observed that, despite their ferocious golfing, a number of the Mountain Brook husbands may not be quite what they seem; Clark calls them a little “light in their loafers.”
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.