Short version: this wasn’t for me.

Longer version: ‘The Wife Upstairs’ suffers from a few plot holes, to put it mildly, and despite being promoted as a modern re-telling of Jane Eyre, bears very little resemblance to that classic. Both books contain an orphan whose name is Jane, and even that isn’t true (Jane Bell reveals early on that this is not her real name); both books contain an unwanted wife – except that isn’t true either, as ‘Eddie’ Rochester definitely isn’t done with Bea Rochester; and while the original novel ends with everyone suitably chastised, this story doesn’t care for moral flourishes.

What’s it about?

Jane is walking dogs for a living in the kind of neighbourhood where people “do lunch”, for the kind of people who don’t notice when their expensive earrings go missing, when she meets Eddie Rochester in a way that is presumably meant to be sort of rom-com-ish but is mostly bizarre. He buys a dog for her to walk literally the next day, and instead of taking this as a warning that he might be a bit…obsessive? stalker-ish? odd?…Jane decides to try and grab an easy life by cosying up to him, all while hiding her big, dramatic secrets…

Does Jane sound like the kind of character you’d like to spend time with? She swears, steals and manipulates, treating us to mini flashes of hardship to engender some sympathy. Her best feature is probably her contempt for the bland, manicured women around her, leading dull, flashy lives – but then she tries to become one of them and the storyline is pretty dull, until Jane thinks she hears some thumps overhead…what, exactly, happened to Eddie’s wife? Suddenly, Jane has to find out…

What’s it like?

Ridiculous. There are so many elements of this story which just defy belief. At least, I could sort of ignore them while I was reading the story, but now that I’ve finished it I feel like the whole story is basically impossible.

I can’t elaborate on the plot holes because that would involve spoilers, but I really need to discuss how silly this all was with someone else who has read it, because the longer this storyline floats around my head, the more I’m bewildered that a reader is meant to swallow this.

I’ve read a fair few reviews that recommend suspending disbelief and just enjoying the show, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the reveals either. This probably says more about me and my habit of reading domestic thrillers than the actual book, but I felt like something was hinted at, then outright stated, then stated again from another character’s point of view. One genuine surprise was an unexpected change in viewpoint, but this actually led to further disappointments. I wanted more from these characters. More…planning. More strategy. At one point, someone thinks, ‘oh x will know what to do’ and they just…don’t. Meh. Maybe I was hoping for an evil genius but what I got were characters who were horrible without being clever and a penultimate twist / event that just doesn’t make any sense.

Final thoughts

I found the idea of a modern Jane Eyre interesting, but I found the ‘heroine’ of ‘The Wife Upstairs’ to be actually bland and nasty. Eyre was angry and challenged her elders, but Bell is possibly a sociopath and these attitudes are not the same!

There’s been a lot of interesting discussion about Bertha, the original wife, in Eyre’s classic: a lot of re-evaluating her position has taken place over the years and I think I expected that to inform Hawkin’s re-telling more, but the more I think about the ending of ‘The Wife Upstairs’ the more I can see why people might really like it. Looked at from the right angle, it’s brilliant: the perfect ending for such a modern tale. But no matter how hard I squint, I can’t sustain that angle. Maybe I just dislike this Jane too much!

I think my expectations skewed my response – I was disappointed by Bea – and I am aware that a lot of people have really loved this book, but I think ultimately it just wasn’t for me. I finished it because I did enjoy the audio narration and it was easy to listen to.

‘The Wife Upstairs’,
Rachel Hawkins,
2021, HarperCollins, eAudiobook