THE ENGLISH WIFE
When I read a book I really like, I immediately look for more titles by the same author. Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair, which I recently reviewed for “Bookin’ with Sunny,” led me to Willig’s latest novel, The English Wife. Once again, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough! The English Wife begins with a sensational murder. On the night of an ostentatious housewarming gala, the body of a wealthy American is found on the grounds of his estate by his sister and their cousin. A knife handle protrudes from his chest. The victim gasps a single word before he dies. His wife, they discover, has gone missing.
Like The Ashford Affair, The English Wife proceeds by moving back and forth in time. In this novel, however, that time frame involves only one generation. The murder occurs in 1899 New York; the events leading up to that murder flash back to 1894 London; the investigations and inquest come later. Another similarity between the two narratives is the fact that the reader immediately spots discrepancies. Instantly, then, the reader begins reconciling past and present or tries to. The author reveals the pieces of the puzzle very slowly, unpacking them one at a time, fitting the questions and answers all together only at the very end of the book.
Willig masters intrigue as well as any novelist I’ve recently read. That’s what is so compelling about her writing. The reader finds a new clue, thinks “aha,” then finds that “aha” moment diffusing into cloudiness on the very next page. That’s why Willig’s books are so hard to put down, too. The depths of layers of intrigue are like quicksand, and you simply have to keep moving. That’s also why it is hard to review her novels. I don’t want to reveal a single secret in advance. That is the magic of The English Wife as well as of The Ashford Affair. All the characters hide at least one secret. Some damaging, some surprising, some absolutely devastating. Willig’s gift is in showing how those secrets mesh.
Another aspect of Willig’s writing that I particularly enjoy is the way she alludes to other literary works. This time her allusions spring from Shakespeare. Twelfth Night has particular meaning for the victim and his wife. Not only are their twins’ named Viola and Sebastian, but the festive housewarming/murder scene occurs on that January date. Other parallels exist, too, as events in Willig’s novel mirror similar scenes in Shakespeare’s play. In fact, rereading Twelfth Night would definitely enhance the experience of reading The English Wife.
And that experience is marvelous. Back to the bookstore I go, looking for more novels by Lauren Willig. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Lauren Willig: The Summer Country; The Glass Ocean; The Other Daughter; That Summer; The Lure of the Moonflower; The Mark of the Midnight Manzanilla; The Passion of the Purple Plumeria; The Garden Intrigue; The Orchid Affair; The Mischief of the Mistletoe; The Betrayal of the Blood Lily; The Temptation of the Night Jasmine; The Seduction of the Crimson Rose; The Deception of the Emerald Ring; The Masque of the Black Tulip; The Secret History of the Pink Carnation; Two