• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Wife Upstairs by Rachel Hawkins

The characters aren't deeply developed, but twists and turns make The Wife Upstairs a magnetic, fast read to add to your mystery reading this winter.

In Rachel Hawkins's new mystery The Wife Upstairs, each of the main players and their histories aren't what they seem.


Jane is new to Birmingham, Alabama. She's seemingly trustworthy and nonthreatening, the perfect dog-walker for upscale Mountain Brook families. And if, while she's taking care of their beloved pets, Jane slips a few small valuables into her pockets to sell for cash or just because she can, none of her privileged clients are likely to ever be the wiser.


But the young woman who has taken on the name of Jane and is desperate to leave her dark past behind her has wormed her way into the idyllic community in the aftermath of a tragedy. Two of the neighborhood's cherished young wives, longtime best friends, died months earlier in a boating accident. When Jane places herself in the path of one of the widowers and he shows interest in her, she can't believe her luck. This could be a better new beginning than even Jane could have manipulated into reality. But is she doing the scheming, or is something more complicated--even sinister--going on?


The reader is required to gloss over certain details in order for the premise to work (I was distracted wondering about hygiene logistics, only vaguely mentioned relatively late in the book, and curious about how intermittent noise did not factor in more heavily). Certain characters' emotional roller coasters and loyalties felt abhorrent in light of what I believed had occurred--but then Hawkins turned my feelings about the protagonists' feelings upside down with a story twist.


Each of the main characters is consumed by wealth, class, and appearances, and hearing about superficial concerns at such length began to be a little tiresome. But each of these characters turned out to be hiding elements of their histories that put into context their obsessions with financial security (and the promise of a level of freedom that is linked to having enough money).


I felt as though Jane was a frequent contradiction--she is said to be young and pretty, but also to be helpfully nondescript. She is said to be cutthroat and clever, but she also seemed incredibly naive. She seemed to be searching for a quick fix for her financial situation, but she rapidly became entrenched in what felt like a long-term commitment. Yet her character is used to desperately scrambling, finding an angle and taking advantage of it, and being what people expect or want to see (or someone others refuse to acknowledge, sometimes to her own benefit), which made the contradictions feel possible.


It seems necessary to the book that there is not a lot of character depth so that the plot surprises can feel plausible, but its twists and turns make The Wife Upstairs a magnetic, fast read to add to your mystery reading this winter.


I received a prepublication copy of this book from St. Martin's Press and NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

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I mentioned this book--along with Today Tonight Tomorrow and Here For It--in the Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 1/1/21 Edition.