I’m going to be clear up front that I am not a fan of the Brontes and I really dislike Mr. Rochester. When he gets held up as a romantic hero my jaw clenches. When Rose Lerner announced she was writing an f/f retelling of Jane Eyre I was delighted. I was delighted Mr. Rochester wouldn’t end up with the love of a good woman, and more importantly, Rose Lerner is an amazing author and I’d read her retelling of my grocery list.
The Wife in the Attic is a very good gothic romance. The narrator, Elsa Lepecki Bean, brings all the suspense, confusion and paranoia that a good gothic needs to the performance.
Miss Deborah “Livvy” Oliver is a plain, poor, well educated woman of a certain age given the opportunity by her patroness, Lady Tassell, to become the governess for young Miss Palethorp at Goldengrove, a remote estate on the coast. Tabby Palethorp is an only child, beloved and indulged by her father, Sir Kit, and it appears, ignored by her invalid mother. When Livvy arrives, she is surprised to learn that Sir Kit locks all of the doors at night. All of the residents are locked into their rooms and into the house. Sir Kit claims a fear of thieves. After confessing her fear of fire, Livvy is given her own key on a beautiful golden chain, courtesy of Lady Palethorp. Livvy is immediately drawn into Sir Kit’s inner circle. He overshares, over steps boundaries, and sends up a parade of red flags that Livvy only half recognizes. As the oddities pile up though, her sympathies begin to fray. Livvy has her own secret – her mother was Jewish.
The Wife in the Attic is very good, but not a nice book. Everyone is at points unlikable and paranoid. Livvy makes terrible choices and commits a heinous act that will surprise no one who has read Jane Eyre. Livvy ruminates on slavery, misogyny, and the persecution of Jews in Portugal. Lerner makes good use of foreshadowing both in the catastrophe and in the recovery from it. I loved that Lerner kept the atmosphere tense and paranoid even as the summer sun beat down of the beaches and fields of grain around Goldengrove.