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Two Modern Tudors

April 10, 2020

Wife After Wife by Olivia Hayfield (2020) and The Dead Queens Club by Hannah Capin (2019) are briefly reviewed together for two reasons: first, because while Anne Boleyn features prominently in them (and in the second is the key to the central mystery of the book) she is not the lead character or the main focus of the story, as all six wives, in various guises, are featured in both books. The second is that both are modernized updates — stories that could be said, until a month ago at least, to be “set in the present.” Suffice it to say that they are now set in the very recent past. Both updates succeed in their own way — the second more than the first, as it pulls off the astounding feat of successfully modernizing Catherine of Aragon — and both are excellent diversions for anyone who may be seeking indoor entertainment in the near future.

A modernization in the spirit of Anne Of Hollywood, Wife After Wife follows the social and professional career of Henry Rose, British media mogul who’s always looking for a leg up both in business and in bed. While he genuinely loves Katie Paragon, whom he marries very young in the mid-1980s, years of fertility troubles, miscarriages, and Katie’s increasing devoutness take their toll, with a severe blow being Katie’s accidental discovery of a small male mistake Henry had with friendly barmaid Bennie. By the time sexy, smart new Rose Corp. employee Ana Lyebon comes along, the marriage is already in shambles but Katie isn’t going down without a fight. Declaring that since there’s no annulment, they’re still married, she takes their sole surviving daughter Maria off to Wales with her best friend Cassie (divorced wife of Henry’s philandering bestie Charles) to run a women’s retreat and turn Maria against her father.

Marriage with Ana goes well for a while, but he can’t keep away from shy but sexually enthusiastic secretary Janetta. When Ana gets sick of this and files for divorce, one of the New Russians Henry is courting for business reasons (it’s the nineties, after all), decides that the financial fallout from a Rose divorce would complicate an upcoming business deal, and arranges to have her disposed of in a natural-looking way that the current leader of Russia would probably appreciate knowing how to pull off. After Janetta’s death following the birth of their son, a miserable Henry falls briefly in love with a woman’s avatar in an online game, only for the in-person meeting to go disastrously.

And so on to the possible end of his marriage to Wife #6, with bonus appearances by cutthroat divorce lawyer Tom Cranwell, investigative journalist Terri Baskin-More — often hostile to Henry, which is why he prefers to keep her close by and in his employment — and of course his children; overly pious and stern Maria, brilliant and business-sharp Eliza, and Edward, who’s too young to have much personality beyond “young boy” but whom we do get to see vaccinated, thereby reassuring us that his career will extend past his mid-teens. An entertaining secondary couple are Ana’s sociable, lovely, and as it turns out, extremely vengeful older sister Mary — she’s in what used to be called a mariage blanc to whiskey heir Will McCarey, whose HIV+ status is becoming increasingly hard to conceal.

The timeline of the novel — mid-1980s to 2018 — and the ending make it clear that Henry Rose’s departure from his company after his increasingly tangled love life becomes embarrassingly public is intended to resemble the many Weinstein-inspired departures of prominent men which took place around that time. Henry, trying to mend his personal life and humiliated by the still-current rumors about the convenience of Ana’s death, decides to take leave of his company and leave it “to the women,” meaning Maria and Eliza (the latter of whom is so tired of her father’s romantic drama that she jokes about staying a virgin forever).

There’s nothing wrong with it, and it makes a fun, fluffy beach or airplane read. But the conclusion doesn’t really seem to follow from the main part of the story. The author works very hard to make Henry relatable, which in this case means ensuring that he doesn’t do anything so bad that the reader completely loses sympathy for him. Even Ana’s death isn’t something he requests or even agrees to — his New Russian associate hears about Henry’s troubles, senses potential financial stress, and semi-jokingly suggests that Henry would be much better off if she died. Henry nervously laughs this off, and is genuinely surprised and horrified after Ana turns up dead from “natural causes” and a tiny needle-mark in her neck. Every affair he has — and there are many — is presented as fully consensual. He’s not even particularly ruthless with business associates — Terri Baskin-More and Tom Cranwell live to ply their trades to the very end, Terri even managing to astound Henry with the news that the reason she’s never hit on him is because she’s into women — and not, as Henry had rather adorably assumed, because she was so strong-willed she was able to restrain herself in his presence.

The Dead Queens Club shouldn’t work. It has all the flaws of any “Historical Figures IN HIGH SCHOOL” novel — students with weirdly low homework loads, amazing amounts of autonomy (to say nothing of cars they can use any time), parents who are there only when convenient, and no grief counselors, panicking parents or disciplinary clampdowns when classmates die horribly. In fact, I still think that college would have been a better setting. Astonishingly, however, it works beautifully, and this is in part because the author isn’t afraid to change a few key incidents and characterizations in order to have the story make sense in a modern setting. This is, for instance, the first time I have seen a modernized Catherine of Aragon who had a presence which really reminded you of the original; Lina is no sad sack abandoned wife who should take evening courses and put up a dating profile, but a newly-graduated, brilliant student who is deeply religious and whose fury at Henry stems from a different sort of betrayal than the original — but one which makes perfect sense in a modern context. As for Anne Boleyn, she’s approached very cleverly; by the time the story opens, she and her brother George are already dead (a tragic accident involving scaffolding and some fireworks, or so we’re given to believe). She appears numerous times in flashbacks — a bright, bold girl who’s very prickly as a result of the automatic hate she receives for having (presumably) displaced the much-respected Lina — and a large portion of the story involves our protagonist and several others trying to ferret out the truth of what she really was and how she ended up on that scaffolding. Was she a villainous betrayer? Was Henry? Sure not the latter, he’s so charming, just gets a little excited if he thinks a girlfriend has been stepping out on him …. surely it’s coincidence that a subsequent girlfriend, sweet, bubbly Katie Howard, had a tragic accident in the woods.

Our narrator is Annie Marck, nicknamed “Cleves” by Henry (she’s originally from Cleveland) and an outsider in their town; while everyone else is in some sort of kinship network or has deep ties to the town — Henry is trying to bring back his father’s company’s glory, the late Anne Boleyn was working for her mother’s real estate and construction company, and so forth. Annie knows Henry due to having met him at a summer camp, and only later learned that her parents were moving their family to that town — or rather, her mother was, since her father had taken a one-year visiting professorship in Germany.

Annie is an outsider is several ways; not only is her family from out of town, but both she and her little sister Amelia are adopted (Annie from China, Amelia from Malawi). This latter plot point is very casually mentioned, just a couple of times; at first Annie jokes that her comparative lack of brilliance is because she’s not genetically related to her brilliant parents, but then she ruefully notes that equally non-genetic sister Amelia is pretty brilliant herself, so she can’t just blame chromosomes. Not only is her family new to the town, but she and her sister don’t have what normally is necessary to inherit a title — blood kinship.

Being the outsider does not mean that Annie is necessarily quicker on the uptake than the locals; she’s unusually close to Henry, or as close as a non-girlfriend can get (they both insist the three weeks or so they tried to date doesn’t count). But it does seem, paradoxically, to keep her safe, as it becomes increasingly clear that Henry simply doesn’t take her seriously. Not until the very end does he realize that Annie is capable of evaluating the evidence against him and concluding that he, the golden boy, is capable of being a cold-blooded killer, and that his fury at girlfriends whom he so much as suspects of having flirted with other men is not a dramatic put-on, but terrifyingly real.

Unlike the Henry of Wife After Wife, this charming Henry is a young sociopath who earnestly, indignantly believes himself fully justified in everything he does; even at the end, when it’s become clear what he is, it’s obvious he doesn’t really get that he did anything wrong. In fact, it makes his continued survival unnerving — it’s very gratifying to see the surviving wife-equivalents banding up to uncover the truth about him, but surely they don’t think that will be the end of the story? It left me in the unusual position of desperately wanting a sequel, since this Henry is going to be a menace as long as he’s alive and free.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Jennifer L. Schillig permalink

    These sound like good beach reads (please, Lord, let the beaches be open by the time summer gets here).

    • sonetka permalink

      Definitely good beach reads — I imagine they’d be just as fun if you had to make do with the backyard sandbox but it still wouldn’t feel the same for some reason :).

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