Author Lauren Willig just didn’t deliver what I hoped for in The English Wife. It’s historical fiction and mystery, set in The Gilded Age of New York City, Newport, Rhode Island and country houses. The Van Duyvil family is “old money,” having come to America from Holland a few generations ago. Their oldest son Bayard goes to Europe on a Grand Tour after finishing law school and meets struggling actress Georgiana there. This timeline is intercut with a later timeline after both of them die tragically. Solving the mystery falls to Bay’s sister Janie.
In her mother’s eyes, Janie is the lesser of the siblings. Mrs. Van Duyvil dismisses her constantly, both literally and figuratively. But she’s desperate for truth and teams up with a journalist (a muckraking newspapermen—gasp!) to ferret out the truth.
Unfortunately, the book plods along with the rhythm of a lame horse. It shifts between the storyline of Bayard and Georgiana, whose history is complex and mysterious, and Janie’s present day. We meet also meet the sibling’s cousin Anne, a caustic young woman whose father lost their family’s fortune.
I didn’t like even one aspect of this novel. The characters are unlikable, ranging from strident to arrogant to mealy-mouthed and simpering. The only one who vaguely appealed to me was Georgiana, and she is so shrouded in secrets that I never truly knew her. The journalist is appealing, despite the small amount of time spent on him. And Janie is too weak to consistently admire and root for, which is sad because she has more potential.
I also tired quickly of the constant social climbing. In this world gossip that manages lives, instead of the other way around. That means everyone lives amongst secrets and lies, rather than in the open. It just didn’t make for an appealing book and I struggled to finish.
If you enjoy historical fiction set in snobby, aristocratic households rife with secrets this could work for you. For me, it fell flat as a pancake under a cast iron skillet.
Pair with The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin for an historic and riveting view of The Gilded Age and nearby time periods.