Not your lit class’s Jane Eyre

Prepublication Big5+ review of The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

r/suggestmeabook: I want a thriller inspired by Jane Eyre narrated by a not-unwarrantedly suspicious, impoverished alumna of the foster care system.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 304

Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

Publication date: 1/5/2021

From the publisher: Meet Jane. Newly arrived to Birmingham, Alabama, Jane is a broke dog-walker in Thornfield Estates––a gated community full of McMansions, shiny SUVs, and bored housewives. The kind of place where no one will notice if Jane lifts the discarded tchotchkes and jewelry off the side tables of her well-heeled clients. Where no one will think to ask if Jane is her real name.

In the rivalry between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (which I get), just as passionate as the Star Wars vs. Star Trek arguments (which I don’t), I’m definitely a Jane Eyre girl, so this new novel got my attention quite quickly. Rachel Hawkins’s clever reworking of Jane Eyre is an homage to the original but manages to be fresh. She’s not just dressing up the classic in modern clothes, but picking and choosing elements to create a new and fascinating whodunit. 

The reworking also forces you to think of things that were formerly hidden behind Charlotte Brontë‘s polite Victorian prose. Foster homes of her period were no kinder then than now, and the soot filled past obscures much of the permanent damage the original Jane would have sustained from her environment. Brontë’s novel was ground-breaking at the time, and does not portray Jane’s childhood as rosy, but the consciousness of what was done is different, probably because we actually discuss the effects of trauma more openly now than then.

I don’t miss the hard look in her eyes. One thing growing up in the foster system has taught me was to watch people’s eyes more than you listened to what they said. Mouths were good at lying, but eyes usually told the truth.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Like the original, it’s a first-person narrative; unlike the original, it’s not just Jane we here from. Bea (Bertha’s nickname) is also heard from, and even Eddie gets a turn at the mike. The multiple points of view are well-marked and separate, adding rather than detracting from the story. It’s a little odd (and jolting) when the text shifts from first- to third-person in Bea’s sections, but the publisher has used italics to separate the two perspectives, so they’re easy to follow. I think I’d have preferred to have those first person as well, realizing Bea might be an unreliable narrator, but it works well enough in Hawkins’s capable prose.

Mrs. Reed looks sympathetic. She looks like she absolutely hates that I have to walk her collie, Bear, on a cold and stormy day in mid-February.

She looks like she actually gives a fuck about me as a person.

She doesn’t though, which is fine, really.

It’s not like I give a fuck about her either.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

Jane’s discussion of privilege, in the sense of wealth and education, is deft. It’s enough to make you aware of the issues of class without descending into an overt morality play. The role her formative years had in her ability to trust pervades the narrative, making her understandably cautious. This was a prime example of a character giving you a way into a different perspective and making actions you might ordinarily find morally indefensible suddenly becoming, if not justified, at least understandable.

Wanting things? Sure. that’s been a constant in my life, my eyes catching the sparkle of something expensive on a wrist, around a neck; pictures of dream houses taped to my bedroom wall instead of whatever prepubescent boy girls my age were supposed to be interested in.

But I’ve been dodging men’s hands since I was twelve, so wishing a man would touch me is a novel experience.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The world in which the story unfolds is well built. Hawkins chooses her details well, and you can viscerally feel the comfortable, elegant, and monied world. It’s also a very Southern world, set in Birmingham, Alabama, where Southern Living is the magazine of choice and magnolias and gossip framed in sympathy. It’s a very white world, though, which surprised me a little, knowing the demographics. But the setting is a wealthy, white microcosm, so I personally didn’t find it problematic.

She’s been gone nearly a year, but the arrangement of lilies and magnolias on the front table of my house were hers, and every time I walk past them, it’s like I’ve just missed seeing her, that she’s just stepped out for a second.

Rachel Hawkins, The Wife Upstairs

The novel moves along at a nice clip, but still allows things to unravel slowly enough to build tension. The story jumps along timelines, but Hawkins is always in control of them, so there’s never a moment when you’re confused about when you are.

Overall, a masterful book that even a Wuthering Heights fan might love.