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Book Review: The English Wife

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


The English Wife by Lauren Willig is full of intrigue and suspense.  It is a refreshing change from all the recent Gone Girl look alikes, and instead is part mystery, part love story, and part family drama. This historical crime fiction novel involves murder, scandals, and secrets.

The Gilded Age is highlighted between the years 1894 in England to 1899 in New York.  Bayard, the son of a Knickerbocker prominent family returns after a three-year absence with his English wife, Annabelle aka Georgie.  Their supposed whirlwind romance is shattered at the opening of their Twelfth Night Ball to highlight the new manor.  Bayard is discovered with a dagger in his chest, while Annabelle appears to have drowned in the Hudson.

The story should remind readers of the Clue Game with an abundance of suspects and motives.  There is Bay’s cousin Anne, who could be having an affair, his sister Janie who found the body, his mother who is omnipresent, and his wife Georgie who has disappeared.  As rumors swirl, Janie decides to work with a reporter, Burke, to save the reputation of her brother and sister-in-law to uncover the truth.

Readers are taken back to stories of the past with the characters.  Bayard reminds people of Noel Coward, enjoying music, the arts, and plays, while having another side to his life.  The cousin Anne and Bay’s sister Janie are close to the Cinderella characters with the mother, Mrs. Van Duyvil a reminder of the stepmother. 

Willig noted, “Mrs. Van Duyvil was cold, controlling, impersonal, and distant.  She was only concerned with the lineage, money, and power.  She represented the old New York attitude.  I put in the quote of her telling Annabelle that her heritage went back to Revolutionary times to prove how important her family was. Of course, Annabelle replies that her lineage goes back to the Magna Carta.  I guess that was her in your face moment to her mother-in-law. The comparison fits well with the Cinderella story because Anne is told she has no place in this world.  Like Cinderella Anne is beautiful and charming. Mrs. Van Duyvil treated Janie and Anne as her pawns.”

The ball called the Twelfth Night is based on the Shakespearean play of the same name.  Willig wanted to show that the play’s story “is all about misunderstanding.  It has everyone thinking someone is someone else.  This plays into the secrets the characters are keeping from each other.  There are a lot of people masquerading as someone else. This is similar to this novel’s story where it delves into what the world has done to them.  The real heart of my story is that all the characters are forced by the world they live in to try to be people they are not. This is especially true with Georgie and Bay who were full of secrets with each hiding something from the other.  There were these implied lies based on the omission of information.  Georgie first saw Bay as the Prince Charming and he thinks of her as the missing heiress.”

Readers will enjoy this novel because Willig brings to the forefront the attitudes and issues of the period within the context of a riveting mystery.  She shows through the characters how the Gilded Age was based on wealth and stature, and with it came scandal.  This is where the murder mystery comes into play allowing Willig to combine everything into a very compelling story.