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Book: “The Late Mrs. Willoughby” b y Claudia Gray
Publishing Info: Vintage, May 2023
Where Did I Get this Book: from the marketer!
Where Can You Get this Book: Amazon | IndieBound | WorldCat
Book Description: Catherine and Henry Tilney of Northanger Abbey are not entirely pleased to be sending their eligible young daughter Juliet out into the world again: the last house party she attended, at the home of the Knightleys, involved a murder—which Juliet helped solve. Particularly concerning is that she intends to visit her new friend Marianne Brandon, who’s returned home to Devonshire shrouded in fresh scandal—made more potent by the news that her former suitor, the rakish Mr. Willoughby, intends to take up residence at his local estate with his new bride.
Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy of Pemberley are thrilled that their eldest son, Jonathan—who, like his father, has not always been the most socially adept—has been invited to stay with his former schoolmate, John Willoughby. Jonathan himself is decidedly less taken with the notion of having to spend extended time under the roof of his old bully, but that all changes when he finds himself reunited with his fellow amateur sleuth, the radiant Miss Tilney. And when shortly thereafter, Willoughby’s new wife—whom he married for her fortune—dies horribly at the party meant to welcome her to town.
With rumors flying and Marianne—known to be both unstable and previously jilted by the dead woman’s newly made widower—under increased suspicion, Jonathan and Juliet must team up once more to uncover the murderer. But as they collect clues and close in on suspects, eerie incidents suggest that the killer may strike again, and that the pair are in far graver danger than they or their families could imagine.
Previously Reviewed: “The Murder of Mr. Wickham”
Review: I really loved “The Murder of Mr. Wickham” when I read it last year. So much so that it became my preferred present for the many readers in my family. Not only was it an excellent mystery, but the author managed to do the near-impossible and accurately depict not one, not two, but a huge cast of Jane Austen’s most popular characters. And on top of that, she created two new characters who were able to hold their own in this very competitive cast. All of this to say, I was incredibly pleased to see that there was a sequel coming out this year!
When Juliet Tilney sets out on another social visit, she’s confident in assuring her parents that there is no possibility of murder this go around. Oh, how wrong she will be. For, when visiting the still-struggling Marianna Brandon, Juliet Tilney is introduced to the Willoughbys, and during one note-worthy dinner party, what should happen but that Mrs. Willoughby drops dead of poison. Now, with the help of her friend Jonathan Darcy, Juliet once again sets out to get to the bottom of the mystery.
I was really excited to see what this book had in store. While I was very impressed with the first book, it was also very much a product of the specific circumstances that made up the plot. Jonathan and Juliet were excellent new characters, but the work of carrying the plot and the interest of the reader, was largely hefted by the sprawling cast of popular Jane Austen heroes and heroines. This book is a much more tightly focused story with a much more limited cast of characters. In this way, Jonathan and Juliet had more work to do to carry the book largely on their own. And I think they were more than capable of the job!
I really liked the continued exploration of Jonathan’s low level autism and how his life has been shaped by the reactions of others and their ability or inability to accept or understand him. Here, we get an insight into Jonathan’s past as a victim of bullying at the hands of none other than Mr. Willoughby himself. We also see Jonathan struggle to understand his changing feelings for Juliet and realizing that he, and not only others, has been placing limitations on himself. It was an interesting and subtle exploration that I thought worked very well. For her part, Juliet’s story is much more straight-forward. But I particularly enjoyed the small commentary that ran through the book that acknowledges the limited choices that young women like Juliet faced. A social visit such as this, where Juliet travels to live with her friends the Brandons for several weeks, would not just be a trip of leisure. No, a large chunk of the expectations and motivation would be that a young woman would gain access to new society and new opportunities for marriage. Juliet reflects several times on the challenges between balancing the very practical concerns of a woman such as herself, one with only limited financial support from her family, with her own romantic preferences.
I also really enjoyed the mystery in this one. I was able to predict a few of the secondary aspects of the mystery, but the author did a great job of laying out believable red herrings and misdirecting the reader effectively from the larger truth behind what had happened and why. The motivation, in particular, was interesting and played into a plotline that I had been thinking of as a completely separate thing up until the end.
I will say, however, that this one did suffer a bit by the loss of the other Jane Austen characters. While I enjoyed Juliet and Jonathan immensely, my own preferences for Austen’s characters would not have me picking a focus on “Sense and Sensibility” and all of the secondary characters that make up this book’s cast. As these characters connect to the first book, I understand why this choice was made, and I also think that, as a whole, they were all done very well. I really liked getting to see Eleanor and Edward, in particular. But Brandon and Marianne just aren’t top choices for me, personally, so I couldn’t help being a bit less interested in their dynamics.
This was a very solid follow-up to the first book! In many ways, Claudia Gray made more a statement with this book than with the first: that wasn’t just a happy chance! No, she’s just that legitimately talented. Fans of the first book will definitely enjoy this, and I recommend both of these books to any fans of historical mysteries or Jane Austen.
Rating 8: With the first book, Gray made a splash as one of the best authors tackling Jane Austen re-imaginings today. With this one, she cements her place in the genre.
“The Late Mrs. Willoughby” isn’t on any Goodreads lists, but it should be on Jane Austen Re-tellings.