Rebecca goes to Thornfield

Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost by Lindsay Marcott

r/suggestmeabook: I want a contemporary mash-up of Jane Eyre and Rebecca.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 398

Publisher: Thomas & Mercer (an Amazon imprint)

ARC provided by NetGalley

Contemporary retelling of classic

From the publisher: Jane has lost everything: job, mother, relationship, even her home. A friend calls to offer an unusual deal―a cottage above the crashing surf of Big Sur on the estate of his employer, Evan Rochester. In return, Jane will tutor his teenage daughter. She accepts.

This is a fun read, and instead of doing the usual analysis as a retelling, I’m going to talk about why I titled it the way I did. The writing is good and fast-paced, the characters work, etc., and the plot is taken from greats. However, in retellings I have certain expectations about how the new version plays with the old one, so my gut take on how to treat this was to look more at that, as expectations play such a big part in whether we like a thing or not.

I pulled out my phone. Just one bar, which quickly spluttered out like an extinguished candle.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

I know, the book blurb says that it’s a retelling of Jane Eyre, but I kept thinking of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: the setting on the coast with an abandoned cabin was probably the part that kept me thinking of the later novel. Okay, I admit, I’ve only seen the movie[s] version of Rebecca; I have read Jane Eyre (and seen some movie versions). (More disclosure—I hesitate to say full—I only got around to reading Jane Eyre because of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre Affair. Love that book.) That’s not a criticism; I like both Jane Eyre and Rebecca, and this modern gothic has taken bits of both and given a spin on them that works. But for fans of the former, this retelling may be a little different than they expected.

A heavy gust of fog obscured my view, and when it passed, the glimmer was gone, and there was nothing down there at all. Nothing except sand laced with gray foam and glistening rocks and the heaving sea beyond it.

Nothing could have disappeared so quickly.

Nothing except a ghost.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

Evan Rochester is hot, not really how I recall feeling after reading the description of Edward Rochester. Another detail that makes me lean toward the Rebecca feel.

I became aware once again of his intense physicality. His height. The breadth of his shoulders. The power of his musculature. The rage had faded from his face, and I no longer felt threatened. Just the opposite, I realized. I felt protected.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

However, it’s not hard to see similarities between Jane Eyre and Rebecca when you start looking, as they’re both Gothic, brooding sorts of novels. Both have the wealthy older man coupled with a naive and poor younger woman, in both the protagonist has no family, and in both, the male hero is stupidly withholding information. Both also have a current potential rival to the protagonist.

I made it back to the cottage feeling shaken and chilled. Like a first rate martini, I thought. Except, no, the best martinis were stirred, and suddenly I began to crave one.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

For me, the strongest reason for thinking of Rebecca rather than Jane Eyre is the cursory treatment of this Jane’s family and upbringing and that she doesn’t lose her mother until adulthood. The original Jane’s childhood in her forbidding orphanage explains many of her adult choices. (Okay, I’ve got to use some kind of shorthand for the original Jane Eyre character—from here on, she’s OJ.) The Jane in LIndsay Marcott’s version has only lost her mother relatively recently, and there’s nothing to indicate the same kind of hardships that OJ underwent. At the opening of the book, Marcott’s Jane has been a successful TV writer, albeit on cable, which doesn’t parallel OJ at all.

An unwelcome surprise in my cottage. My bed that I’d left rumpled was now made up military tight. My breakfast dishes were no longer in the sink. Every surface gleamed. Anunciata had been here with her Swiffer.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

And the other stance that differentiates it from Jane Eyre and makes it more like Rebecca is that Marcott’s Jane knows of the existence of Rochester’s wife from the outset, whereas OJ doesn’t learn of Bertha until Chapter 26. (Hell, OJ didn’t even know Rochester existed until after she arrived at Thornfield.) Instead, like the second Mrs. De Winter, Marcott’s Jane is obsessed with the first wife (Beatrice in this version for reasons that are probably obvious) even though she doesn’t come to Thornfield because of her marriage. Indeed, the Rebecca analogy is strengthened by the stronger presence of the Bertha analog’s brother in this retelling, more like the cousin in Rebecca, whom Jane interacts with on various occasions throughout the book.

And now, with visible calculation, Richard McAdams tried another tack with me: his eyes softened; his mouth assumed a boyish smirk.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

The strongest reason to discard the Rebecca analysis is the absence of Mrs. Danvers’ psychological manipulation. The creepy housekeeper in this one is no Danvers; she barely speaks English (if at all; I don’t now recall if she said anything much), so her ability to bewitch Jane with insinuations is limited. If anyone is being a frenemy, it’s Jane’s friend Otis, an aspiring chef, who is the one who dragged Jane out to Thorn Bluffs (the Thornfield analog) to begin with.

Thickets of ferns glistened like otherworldly plants between the trunks. Hump-backed shadows flickered in the foliage beyond.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

Regardless of the Rebecca similarities, it’s still got Jane Eyre references. The names, of course, are the most significant, as well as the general plot, although, not surprisingly, there are key differences. The character of the girl Jane comes to Thorn Bluffs to tutor is much more developed in Marcott’s story, which I found to be a plus. The brother of the Bertha character is very well done and adds depth to the story.

With the air of granting a particularly nonsensical favor, Sophia yanked the belt across her chest. Tugged her short-shorts from between the cleft of her buttocks, excavated a pack of Bubble Yum from her back pocket, and ripped it open. Crammed two pink slabs in her mouth.

Lindsay Marcott, Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost

So if you’re in the mood for a Gothic romance that is reminiscent of both these classics, check out Mrs. Rochester’s Ghost.


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.