George March’s latest novel is a smash hit. None could be prouder than Mrs. March, his dutiful wife, who revels in his accolades and relishes the lifestyle and status his success brings.
A creature of routine and decorum, Mrs. March lives an exquisitely controlled existence on the Upper East Side. Every morning begins the same way, with a visit to her favourite patisserie to buy a loaf of olive bread, but her latest trip proves to be her last when she suffers an indignity from which she may never recover: an assumption by the shopkeeper that the protagonist in George March’s new book – a pathetic sex worker, more a figure of derision than desire – is based on Mrs. March.
One casual remark robs Mrs. March not only of her beloved olive bread but of the belief that she knew everything about her husband – and herself – sending her on an increasingly paranoid journey, one that starts within the pages of a book but may very well uncover both a killer and the long-buried secrets of Mrs. March’s past.
It has been a long time since a book both captivated and unsettled me as much as Mrs March. Virginia Feito’s accomplished debut is a poised, elegant, and delightfully disturbing portrait of a woman in crisis that had me utterly gripped from the very first page!
The novel opens with Mrs March, wife of fêted literary novelist George, buying her usual olive bread from her usual patisserie. Everything about Mrs March is usual. With her mint green gloves, coiffed hair, Upper East Side apartment, and practical loafers she is, to be quite honest, boringly respectable. So when the patisserie owner praises Mrs March on the success of George’s latest novel, Mrs March is ready to smile graciously and exchange platitudes about her talented husband and, by extension, her successful and elegant life. What she is not expecting is for the woman to think that the protagonist Johanna – a sex worker whose patrons continue to use her services from pity rather than desire – is based on Mrs March.
This seemingly small incident begins a gradual unravelling of Mrs March’s seemingly conventional life, causing her to reconsider the narratives she has constructed around her lifestyle, her marriage – and even her very existence. And as her carefully constructed world shifts and tilts around her, the secrets of Mrs March’s past begin to leak into her present – and the possibility that George may be far more dangerous than she could ever have imagined begins to prey upon her mind.
As Mrs March becomes every more unmoored, the reader is sucked into a suspenseful and sinister portrait of a woman forced to grapple with the cracks that have appeared in both her inner and outer life. Small, seemingly incidental, moments – a cockroach on a bathroom floor, a stolen cigarette case – take on meanings and symbolism of their own as Mrs March navigates her now fractured sense of self and re-evaluates the choices that have led her into this existence.
As you might expected, this does not necessarily make for ‘easy’ reading. Mrs March is, in many ways, a deeply unsettling novel and there were a few occasions when I had to put the book down and take a break to escape the suffocation of Mrs March’s claustrophobic interior life. This all-pervading sense of paranoia is a testament to the quiet brilliance of Virginia Feito’s writing which combines detailed observation of the minutiae of Mrs March’s life with pared back yet absorbing style.
Whilst the era in which the novel is set is never made completely clear, we’re in an era of ‘the help’, of smoking at cocktail parties in other people’s homes, of being served in department stores by elegant assistants at individual counters – and of ‘respectable’ women’s lives being strictly curtailed and regulated by societal expectations of marriage and motherhood. As such, the novel is a commentary upon social complicity in the vein of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper (with which it shares definite themes), and it caused me to think not only about what sort of society creates a woman like Mrs March but also the extent to which she is invested as an agent of her own downfall.
With shades of Patricia Highsmith’s suspenseful menace and Shirley Jackson’s unsettling paranoia, Mrs March is a slow-burning but effective portrait of a woman that raises questions about the line between sanity and insanity, and the role of society, childhood, and those we love in creating our inner selves. With its bleak yet razor sharp humour, fans of My Sister, the Serial Killer will find Mrs March to be another compelling read that focuses on the darker side of female existence – and another debut writer to watch.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review and for inviting me onto this blog tour. The tour continues until 15 August 2021 so do check out the other stops for more reviews and content.
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