Another month, another painfully bad book club book. I love the idea of a book club, because I definitely get stuck in ruts where I keep reading my favorite authors and genres over and over again at the expense of trying anything new. But I wish my actual club could pick a book every once in a while that isn’t a giant stinker. I had high hopes for this one, too, as it’s good for nearly a hundred pages. I’ve never had a four-star read devolve into a one-star read so quickly. If you told me one writer wrote the first half and then passed it off to someone else for the second half, I would believe you; the first half is good, but the second half is one of the most convoluted messes I’ve read in a while.
What’s it about?
Jane is an independent-minded woman who arranges a marriage of convenience for herself. Her chosen husband is perfect on paper—a doctor of good means and marriageable age who requires an assistant with Jane’s logical and mathematical skillset—but Jane learns quickly that he has secrets. He lives far away from his practice, in a secluded and decrepit home that he forbids Jane from visiting. But, of course, Jane winds up at this mysterious manor and learns that in her quick marriage she may have signed on for more than she realized.
What’d I think?
Mild/nonspecific spoilers throughout.
I was actually a little concerned before I started this book. It’s coded as horror, and I am a major scaredy cat, and I was worried that I’d have nightmares. I’m afraid of everything. I couldn’t watch Disney’s The Little Mermaid until I was in double digits. When I read Richard Wright’s Native Son in high school, I had to leave it outside my bedroom because I couldn’t sleep with it near me. Both The Prestige and Angels and Demons gave me nightmares for months, and I was a teenager when I saw them. I refused to see The King’s Speech in theatres because I knew that an R-rated movie would have R-rated ads, and I was too afraid to sit through any. It does not take much to scare me, but The Death of Jane Lawrence didn’t scare me at all. I kept expecting something to happen that would horrify me, but nothing ever did. I can’t tell if I’m relieved or disappointed because on one hand… yay, I’m glad to skip the nightmares because I’m sleeping badly enough as it is. On the other hand, if a book claims to be creepy and horrific, the world’s biggest coward should not be able to read it alone at midnight without a care in the world.
The attempts to make The Death of Jane Lawrence scary and mysterious ultimately fail because, as much gore as there is, it’s all strictly medical. When Starling describes surgical procedures as if they’re bone chillingly horrific, I rolled my eyes. The novel itself even admits that Augustine Lawrence’s actions only look horrific when stripped of context (and, let’s be real, the context is obvious even before it’s revealed). Caitlin Starling is so determined to make Jane and Augustine’s story a swoony romance that she fails to maintain any sort of interesting balance for Augustine, which means the scenes that potentially paint him as monstrous are halfhearted at best.
I actually really liked the first half of the book. A gothic romance about an independent woman who arranges a marriage of convenience for herself only to discover that her unknown husband has unsavory secrets? Sounds cool. I love Rebecca, and Jane Eyre is one of my favorite novels, so I was ready for something in that vein. It seemed doubly sure that Jane Lawrence was meant as an homage of sorts to those novels when Jane learned of her husband’s first marriage and the suspicious circumstances around her death. Both Rebecca and Jane Eyre famously have mind-blowing first-wife twists, and it seemed that Starling was headed down that road. Only she wasn’t.