Reading Rachel Hawkins’ adult debut The Wife Upstairs, a reimagining of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre set in modern-day Birmingham, Alabama, is like rubbernecking in real time at a multi-car pile-up on the interstate. I couldn’t look away from the impending devastation.
Appearances can’t be trusted in the gated Stepford-like community — the “coddled bubble” — of Thornfield Estates, where twenty-something Jane Bell works as a dog-walker for the well-heeled housewives on the Neighborhood Beautification Committee, or NBC.
The neighborhood is indeed beautiful, but behind closed doors, particularly those belonging to handsome, enigmatic widower Eddie Rochester, all is not as it seems. The Rochester décor is “expensive but useless crap,” according to Jane, much of it from his dead wife’s lucrative Southern lifestyle brand, Southern Manors. And none of it is whole; it’s being eaten away. A glass bowl, though elegant, is “in the shape of an apple someone has just taken a bite out of.” And that slice of watermelon embroidered on the dishtowels? It has “a perfect bite taken out of one side.”
To borrow the words of author Jean Rhys in Wide Sargasso Sea (the 1966 masterpiece about Edward Rochester’s first wife, the “madwoman in the attic,” in Jane Eyre), this heaven is a false one.
The people, too, aren’t people, not really; they’re personas. Players. All the world’s a stage at Thornfield Estates, where everyone is trying to influence others’ impressions of them by controlling their setting, appearance, and manner, and where even a person’s name might be an invention, a cover. The women on the NBC, for instance, hide their eyes and expressions — and maybe their souls — behind their oversized designer sunglasses, even as they sequester themselves inside their oversized champagne-colored or midnight blue SUVs.
But Jane is a dramaturgical master. She may be plain-looking and from the wrong side of the tracks, as it were, but in little else does she resemble Brontë’s iconic and eponymous Jane Eyre. We learn early in the novel that something is not quite right with this Jane. She is playing a role, presenting a certain version of herself, always “remembering” how she’s “supposed” to appear. She has a murky past and a compulsion for pilfering other women’s jewelry, even when she becomes a woman of means. “The money has never been the point, after all,” she says. “It’s the having I’ve always enjoyed.”
And, boy, does she end up having. The novel follows rags-to-riches Jane as she meets and engineers a romantic entanglement with Eddie, whose wife Bea, along with Bea’s best friend Blanche, went missing after a boating accident still under investigation by the police. As Jane falls in love and gets close to having all her heart desires, her suspicions about Bea’s fate rattle her, eating away at her smug satisfaction. Will she be able to fill Bea’s pricey athleisure wear? Is Bea really dead? And what, Jane wants to know, was that thump upstairs?
Hawkins, a former high school English teacher, is the author of the Hex Hall paranormal romance trilogy along with a bevy of other young adult novels. The Wife Upstairs, her first adult novel, lies definitively within the universe of contemporary female-centered domestic noir thrillers by authors such as Liane Moriarty, Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, and A.J. Finn. It evokes gothic tales like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. And it plays around the edges of the “madwoman in the attic” trope, described expertly in 1979 by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in their landmark work of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination.
Although I enjoyed picking out the parallels between The Wife Upstairs and its models and referents, the novel is not literary per se. It’s a thrill ride. The pace is hurtling, largely due to the book’s short, action-packed chapters. Although Hawkins’ Jane is rather unlikeable, and although it is difficult to understand what first attracted Eddie to her, she is delightfully snarky. Written in the present tense, the story feels imminent. I admired Hawkins’ deft handling of multiple points of view. We hear from Jane mostly, but on occasion we hear from Bea or Eddie. And Hawkins even has Jane address the reader directly, mirroring Brontë’s style and throwing into question Jane’s reliability. “Trust me,” Jane Bell says. Or: “Look, don’t get me wrong.” I felt implicated, dubious, off-kilter as I navigated this elaborate masque of a story.
Particularly intriguing, however, was the deeper layer of meaning underlying Hawkins’ tale and the shenanigans of her characters. She seems to be exploring what happens when both women and men, due to past trauma or to a desperate need to acquire and have, lack any true sense of self. What do they appropriate — and who do they step on to appropriate it — in an effort to make themselves whole?
The Wife Upstairs
By Rachel Hawkins
St. Martin’s Press
Published January 5, 2021