Review: The Wife Upstairs, Rachel Hawkins

It opens with the classic words, ‘It is the absolute shittiest day for a walk’. Jane Bell is a dog-walker, out in all weathers walking the pampered pets of Thornfield Estate. She quietly loathes her wealthy clients and is not above pilfering their possessions when they’re not looking, intensely jealous of their money and security. But then one day she stumbles across the path of the recently widowed Eddie Rochester and suddenly, Jane wonders if he just might be her ticket out of her precarious existence. But … just what was it that happened to his wife exactly? This is Jane Eyre mashed up with Gone Girl and Desperate Housewives – a contemporary retelling with a truly savage twist.

Spin-offs and retellings of classic novels rarely turn out well. I kind of stumbled on this one – I actually thought it was by the author of The Girl on the Train because I wasn’t really paying attention and the two writers have the same last name. Anyway, having vaguely thought that it was an interesting shift to go from thriller-about-trains to retelling of a classic novel, I gave it a closer look than I would likely have done otherwise. Of course, it turned out that Rachel Hawkins is someone completely different but luckily enough I found The Wife Upstairs to be utterly compelling. So … I guess it’s just as well that I wasn’t very ‘on’ the day that I requested it.

Hawkins has done a masterful job at translating the main players of Jane Eyre to modern day Alabama. As a job title, dog walker shares a similarly down-trodden status to Victorian governess. I particularly enjoyed Jane being scolded by a one client for walking the dog too far from home. The real genius touch though was Rochester buying himself a dog so that he can legitimately seek Jane’s services and he calls it … Adele. At that point, I felt like we were in safe hands. This was not going to be one of those spin-offs where the reader is left sucking their teeth at how many errors have been made about the original text (looking at you, PD James). Of course modernised Adele was an obedient little puppy.

Another minor master-stroke was background character John Rivers, Jane’s room-mate. They’re friends from the old days in foster care but these days John is a creep who is not so subtly trying to pressure Jane into a sexual relationship, all the while working for a church. The original novel lent Rivers more dignity in his mission and there are moments when he does seem like a credible alternative for Rochester. Not for nothing did Jeanette Winterson’s mother rewrite the ending for her daughter’s ears in Oranges are not the only fruit. But there was always something uncomfortable about his desire to force Jane to submit to him bodily as a wife and it feels right that Hawkins draws attention to that. The modern Rivers has the same patriarchal desire to dominate Jane and make her ‘behave’ as he wishes and for that, he deserves all he gets and more.

I was less sure about the twists and turns about Jane’s true identity. Much is made of how she is on the run from her past but with the references to hearing her real name being talked about on the news, I was expecting something more significant than was later revealed. View Spoiler » It probably didn’t help though that by the time it was all cleared up, the reader has more or less stopped caring about Jane and instead switched their focus to the drama going on upstairs.

The Thornfield estate has been left reeling after the sudden demise of Bea Rochester and Blanche Ingram, both mysteriously vanished following a boating accident. Actually … less reeling … more just loving the gossip and high drama. Again there are clear nods towards Rebecca here too, not only from the manner of Bea and Blanche’s ‘passing’ but also the way that Jane comes over time to model herself on Bea to try and fit in. While Blanche’s widower Tripp is falling to pieces, Eddie shows little sign of grief. But there’s a reason for that. As the title gives away, his wife is actually still alive and well but locked in the panic room upstairs.

The Wife Upstairs is a strange read because I can’t think of a single character who I actually liked but yet I thoroughly enjoyed it. While my instinct would usually be to champion the underdog, Jane is pretty underhand and the kleptomania really didn’t sit well with me. All of the characters, Jane included, are obsessed with social-climbing and material possessions. Neither of these have ever held much appeal for me. I also found it really hard to visualise Bea Rochester’s infamous ‘Southern Manors’ lifestyle brand – I landed up on a more hideous version of Cath Kidston. But while all this would normally leave me feeling ambivalent, The Wife Upstairs still managed to make me feel invested. Hawkins is having terrific fun snarking about the lives of the bored-and-rich and if we’ve read the original novel, we know that the pay-off will be that we get to see them all burn.

To be blunt, when I twigged that I had misunderstood this book’s author, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, my expectations were pretty low. The high level of expletives isn’t usually my scene – each one of the ‘iconic’ lines of the original novel are made over with swear words. But instead, I was very pleasantly surprised. The Wife Upstairs does raise some thought-provoking questions about the original novel. Bea describes how she re-establishes a sexual relationship with her husband to regain some control over him (Reader, I fucked him). But then as she realises that he has moved in Jane, she ponders what it must feel like to have a wife upstairs and a girlfriend downstairs. And this really made me wonder about Rochester in the original. There is also huge suspicion over how the far less wealthy Eddie had attached himself to Bea in the first place – they met on vacation – and given that the canonical Rochester married Bertha for her money, his motivations remain murky at best. Bertha Rochester remains such a blank even if one does read The Wide Sargasso Sea – what did she really think of her faithless spouse? The Wife Upstairs is not a book about women who accept their fates lying down.

In her afterword, Hawkins mentioned that this book is written for all the women who ever read Jane Eyre and thought, ‘Honestly, Jane? You can do better.’ Perhaps because I really have always been in that demographic, The Wife Upstairs definitely hit the mark for me. Simultaneously light-hearted and sharp-tongued, this is a highly entertaining domestic thriller which can be enjoyed by both uninitiated and Brontëphile alike.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins
Published by HarperCollins on January 5th 2021
Genres: Fiction, Thrillers, Psychological, Romance, Suspense, Women, Mystery & Detective, International Mystery & Crime, Mashups, General
Pages: 304
ISBN: 9780008377533

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