If you followed my last two reviews on my blog (The Cruel Prince and The Mitford Murders), you’ll notice I haven’t been a fan of books released in 2018. I did find one cozy mystery I finished a couple days ago (Murder and Marble Cake by Nancy McGoven), but besides that so far I hadn’t found a book released in 2018 which I thought was really good.
Enter The English Wife.
Release Date: January 9, 2018
Plot Synopsis: Set mostly in New York City near the turn of the century, this story follows one of the wealthiest families in the city, the Van Duyvil family. Bayard, the heir of the house, and his lovely English wife Annabelle are considered a perfect couple. This is, until they throw a Twelfth Night Shakespearian ball and Bayard is found with a knife in his chest and Annabelle is missing, possibly drowned in the river. Bay’s younger sister Janie, with the help of newspaper journalist Mr. Burke, attempts to solve the mystery.
I have actually read quite a few of Willig’s books. I read the first nine books in her Pink Carnation series (my rating for them vary from one star to four stars). Some of them I loved, some of them I hated. So, for this book, I went into it trying to keep my expectations low, because I knew it would be either good or bad. But I was, on the most part, pleasantly surprised.
The historical context of this book is incredible. All the characters feel from the time period (a rare compliment from me, considering how many historical books I read where the characters feel modern). There are little insertions of real world events, the dialogue feels genuine, and the descriptions are poignant.
The plot itself felt less of a mystery than it did a family drama. I love historical mysteries, and this one feels more like historical fiction than mystery. Saying that, I don’t think this detracted from the book that much. For example, I had pretty much all the plot twists figured out nearly a hundred pages before they were revealed (save for the murderer him/herself). But, for me, it didn’t detract from the book because I looked at the plot as more of following the unfolding of family secrets than of a typical murder mystery.
Janie’s chapters were much more likable than Georgie’s (I’ll explain who she is in the spoiler section). In a lot of Georgie’s chapters, I skimmed a lot more. Often her chapters revealed too much about the mystery, so when Janie figured out the same things, I was like, “Yeah, I know, the reader figured that out fifty pages ago.” Just as it’s annoying if the detective solving the crime knows more than the reader, it’s also annoying if they know less. I personally would have cut back on Georgie’s scenes and focused more of Janie.
The one and biggest complaint I have about this book is the timeline. There were constant times where I had to go back to check dates. I’ll get more into this in the spoiler section, but I kept getting confused about what happened when.
But, all over, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I liked that Willig gave less emphasis to romance and more to drama. In her Pink Carnation series, there was sometimes too much romance for my tastes. But this book does a good job of including it in the plot without having it trump the drama.
Now, unto a more detailed look.
In order for me to explain my thoughts in this section, I feel like I must make one big spoiler. Annabelle is actually Georgie (you find it out about a quarter of the way through the book, so it’s not much of a spoiler). I feel like I must explain this just so that no one is confused.
The plot reveals that Georgie was the half-sister to a wealthy woman, Annabelle. Annabelle’s cousin, Mr. Giles, was determined to marry her to gain her wealth, so the two girls ran away (Annabelle to Australia and Georgie to be an actress in Paris). Bay, after meeting Georgie, thinks she is Annabelle, and she lets him believe it. So the Annabelle he marries is actually Georgie. Now that that’s out of the way…
Reading the scenes with Georgie and Bay felt like seeing Anakin and Padme’s story from Star Wars. A doomed love, ending in death. We know in the beginning that Bay dies, so when Georgie meets him and they grow to love each other, there were no gooey feelings for me like, “Ah, they’re so cute!” To me, their romance was never interesting because I knew it would end poorly. This is less of a criticism and more of my general feelings.
I mentioned earlier that the timeline was a bit confusing. Let me elaborate and give an example. One chapter starts with a heading of “Cold Spring, 1898, November” in which David (an architect who builds Bay’s house and his lover—yep, big spoiler for that too) tells Mr. Giles where Georgie is. However, when Giles shows up in New York a bit later, it’s under the chapter entitled, “Cold Spring, 1898, January 5.” This is months before the other one. And this was not the only example of timeline confusion. In fact, I gave up reading the dates and instead just focused on whose perspective it was in (Janie’s or Georgie’s).
This is a strange critique, but I honestly didn’t like the title of the book. It makes it sound like an average romance, not a mystery. In fact, Georgie may have been English, but the story is as much about Bay and his family as it is about her. I personally would have named the book something like The Twelfth Night, because that Shakespeare’s play was prominent throughout the book, whereas The English Wife was only mentioned once. Just a thought.
I will not spoil the identity of the murderer, because I really did enjoy this book and I would recommend reading it yourself to find out. The romance was realistic and the mystery was second to the drama. It’s the first book I read released in 2018 that I thought was well-written. If you are a fan of historical dramas, you’ll like this book.
I’ll end with Janie’s quote on page 281, which describes this book perfectly, “It’s too fantastical…Lost heirs and false twins and impersonations.”
Best wishes in your life full of adventures,