Walk into a bookshop and take a step; you’re likely to have walked past at least three re-tellings, one of them probably fairy tale based. Society appears bereft of original ideas. That’s not to suggest that it is impossible to write a good re-telling; there are just certain elements that need to be present for it to be successful, to make readers glad that it exists and not think to themselves “why didn’t I just read the original?”. The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins is such a re-telling, loosely based on the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre being one of my favourite books, I’ll admit that scepticism was rife – but not altogether unjustified.
The novel opens on our protagonist Jane, a dog-walker in a fancy gated community with a mysterious past. She bumps (literally) into Eddie Rochester, a wealthy widower whose wife died in a boating accident. As Jane and Eddie get closer, she becomes more and more entranced by the enigma of his ex-wife. This books borrows tropes from many classic novels; the reader is by turns delighted and vaguely irritated by the continued references.
Jane as a protagonist is confusing, but on the whole well-written. She’s not a cookie-cutter Stepford Wife – that is clear from the opening salvo. She is a survivor, someone who is a good manipulator, someone who takes nothing on face value. Don’t attempt to compare her to the original Jane Eyre – the resemblance is superficial and I had to let the comparison go mid-way through the novel, because all the contradictions were giving me a headache. However, for someone who spends the majority of her life trying to gauge and control other people, Jane is fairly naïve, which at certain points feels a little jarring. But it makes for an intriguing read, watching her go about the fancy neighbourhood and attempting to keep her mask in place.
A thriller novel will live and die by its ability to shock and grip its reader. Taking the same twist from the original novel, adding a bit more spice and forcing it into a modern setting, for myself at least, unfortunately doesn’t cut it. This book is a Frankenstein of other classic novels; there are Jane Eyre references, Rebecca references, even a Wuthering Heights quote. It felt like the author was trying to prove her literary credentials by ticking off all the classics she’s read; forced at best, pretentious at worst.
Ultimately, I wouldn’t necessarily categorise this as a thriller; it’s more a character-study with some thriller-like elements thrown in. If you liked the original Jane Eyre, you’ll probably enjoy this, even just for the opportunity to pick out all the references. As fun as that may be, however, the original classics deal with the same themes on a much more nuanced level – and I’m going right back to my copy of Jane Eyre with new eyes and appreciation.
Image: Canburak via Flickr
Image is a still from the 2011 film adaptation of Jane Eyre, featuring Jane and Rochester embracing