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The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

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The Wife Upstairs

by Rachel Hawkins
January 5, 2021 · St. Martin's Press

Jane Eyre is in my top ten favorite books and I’m very protective of it. I wrote a short book called Pride Prejudice and Popcorn: TV and Film Adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre, in which I concluded that any adaption can work as long as it stays true to the themes and characters of the source material. The Wife Upstairs is hard to review because how it works on its own and as an adaptation depends on the many twists that unfold throughout the book. The Wife Upstairs is not a romance novel, that’s for sure, and it’s not lyrically written, but it has a masterful grasp of character and plotting and it zips right along as any good thriller should, leaving the reader madly turning pages instead of, say, emptying the dishwasher is which what I should have been doing while I finished the book instead.

In this contemporary take off on Jane Eyre, Jane is a dog walker for people in the rich neighborhood of Thornfield Estates. She has a bit of a kleptomania problem and a desperate need to erase her past. She tells the reader (Jane narrates in first person, present tense) very early that Jane is not her real name. Jane wants to be rich, but also secure and respected. She begins a romance with Eddie Rochestor, a widow in the Estates. Eddie’s wife, Bea, and Bea’s best friend, Blanche, died in a boating accident six months ago. OR DID SHE?????

plot spoiler!

Reader, she did not.

So – first of all, I love the first sentence of the book (“It is the absolute shittiest day for a walk”) and the fact that Adele is a dog (in the original, Adele is Mr. Rochester’s ward) (and yes, the dog is fine). These are beautiful set ups to the cynical version of the story. Jane’s kleptomania plays beautifully with her resentment of the rich and her desire not only to be them, but to be superior to them. The prose isn’t especially sophisticated – in fact the book reads a little bit like one of the thrillers that Eddie makes fun of later in the book. Here’s an example of the “to-the-point language”

I’ve been walking dogs in the Thornfield Estates subdivision for almost a month now, and if there’s one thing I’ve figured out, it’s that what matters is how everything looks.

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.

I love a good zippy thriller and this one does a great job of showing a manipulative but fundamentally lonely person trying to control her environment with unexpected results. It’s also well constructed, passing the re-read test. On a re-read, all the twists were hinted at and all of them made sense in the context of the rest of the book, which is often a hard thing to pull off.

Most of my thoughts on the book can only be told when hidden behind massive spoiler tags. This book has a lot of twists and it wasn’t working for me overall until one of the twists was revealed. So I have a lot of feelings about this particular twist but I recommend people go ahead and read the book without clicking on the spoiler.



Massive plot spoilers ahoy!

Jane is not Jane, she is Helen Burns. Jane and Helen were foster children together and Helen had to watch Jane die of illness because their abusive foster father refused to take her to a doctor.

Here’s why this makes the book work for me – makes it, in fact, much more interesting and delightful than if the protagonist had actually been Jane.

In Jane Eyre, Jane’s greatest characteristic is that she is able to hold on to her moral center and her sense of self-worth in a world which is corrupt and which tells her that she is worthless. I believe adaptations should be true to the character traits of the original characters, so this book’s amoral Jane, someone who is dishonest to the core of her being, did not work for me at all.

This being the case, the protagonist being Helen Burns should really piss me off (Helen in Jane Eyre is a freaking saint), but instead I love it. In Jane Eyre, Helen is the epitome of virtue, urging Jane not to seek vengeance on those who have wronged her and talking about heaven non-stop. That version of Helen would have ascended to heaven, angels guiding the way, beaming a heavenly light on all who wronged her. She looked forward to death as she hoped and expected to go to heaven

I am, however, a firm believer in the theory that when pushed to their limit, the nicest people will throw down the hardest and that when people who are deeply repressed crack, they crack waaaay open. Our narrator in The Wife Upstairs doesn’t talk much about the past, but let’s say that Helen was a foster child who kept herself “good,” who preserved her moral center and sense of self-worth, by protecting her sister Jane. And let’s say that for whatever reason, Helen always assumed that acting as a buffer between Jane and the world meant that Helen would suffer but Jane would be protected. This is analogous to how Helen in Jane Eyre always knows that she will die but Jane will live. If foster sister Jane should die, robbing Helen of her sense of purpose and identity, might not Helen do a full 180 into “vengeance upon the world” territory? I think she might.

This is not the only twist in this twisty book. Every twist was exciting. Every twist was interesting. It was especially fun to see how many people were trying to conceal the past from each other, and why. At its best, the book was a searing condemnation of the hollowness of the rich and at its worst it was compelling fun. I rooted for Jane even at her most amoral, because I knew she was lonely and adrift, and I couldn’t put the book down, because I couldn’t guess what would happen next. And then I re-read it.

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