When I first heard that Rose Lerner was writing an f/f/ gothic retelling of Jane Eyre, I was thrilled. My expectations were high! Then Audible picked it up as an Audible Original and I got even more excited knowing I wouldn't have to wait for one of those days when my brain can read words on a page. This book on audio is long--a little over 16 hours. I'm happy to report, however, that it's very much worth the time investment.
Like the classic novel it retells, The Wife in the Attic is a gothic novel full of questionable motives, suspense and the creeping terror of being trapped inside a house with strangers who may or may not be trying to kill you. (Or assault you, in this case.) Lerner excels at building the suspense gradually and her use of single POV was perfect for the slow reveal of shady goings-on.
Though I knew the Mr. Rochester character, Sir Kit, was keeping his wife imprisoned, I was swept up in Deborah's (Jane) initial attraction to this charismatic man who presents himself as a lonely and kindhearted man with a "mad" wife and young daughter. He is too tenderhearted to send her to a mental institution, you see. His wealthy, long-confined wife Jael does present herself as quite violent and unstable, kept away from human company for so long. She sneaks visits to her daughter at night and views Deborah as Sir Kit's ally, there to take young Tabby away from her.
The Wife in the Attic is a work of carefully- and expertly-wrought character development. Deborah's Jewish family was broken by persecution and murder, but her grandmother raised her to be proud of her people, even if she had to keep quiet to protect herself. Lerner explores generational trauma, PTSD and the wearing-down of a soul from decades of micro and macroaggresions. (Please see the content warnings below if you need them.)
Overcoming manipulation and gaslighting from both Sir Kit and Jael, Deborah forges her own path forward even as she questions her sanity and motives. Does she want to liberate Jael and Tabby just because she wants to be in a relationship with Jael? Or because Sir Kit is actually causing harm? When is murder justified?
This is a long book, but I was absolutely enthralled. 16 hours of audio in two days? Why not? (I listen at 1.5x, it wasn't quite that long.) I cannot recommend it enough.
Audio Notes: Elsa Lepecki Bean was a great fit for this book. The production itself was great, but one thing that stood out to me is the use of guitar throughout. Though her fingers were broken by Inquistors, her grandmother taught her how to play guitar, specifically Portuguese songs that she's felt she needs to hide. Deborah brought her guitar--one of her few possessions--with her to the house and she and Jael bond over some of the songs. It's a beautiful tribute to the ways in which cultural touchstones keep us connected to our families, our ancestors and our faith.
Content Warnings: discussion of Jewish persecution including the Inquisition and burning of Jews, frequent slurs, generational trauma, nightmares and PTSD, terror of fire, actual fire, murder, forced captivity, spousal "rights", threat of taking away one's child, drug use, attempts to force food consumption (sausage), antisemitism, xenophobia, homophobia, poverty, death of parent (past), death of grandparent (past), character dissociates during a sexual encounter she chooses to have but doesn't want
I received a copy of this audiobook from Audible for review.