Excuse me, but there’s a cockroach crawling up your skirt!

Mrs March by Virginia Feito

From the moment I saw the cover, I was always going to read this book. First impression – that ‘Ratched‘ mint green dress, set against a tomato-red background, the woman’s blood-red lipstick and nails, her air of repressed primness. And then there’s the cockroach! Those critters just creep me out! I should have read it immediately it was published back in August, but too many other plans in action at the time. I am so glad I got to it before the end of the year though, for it goes straight into my to-be-published-soon ‘best of’ list.

Mrs. March is a housewife who lives in comfort on the the Upper East Side. Her husband, George, is a successful author, whose latest novel has just been published: she hasn’t read the book yet, only knowing a few facts about it.

Imagine her surprise, visiting her favourite patisserie, when the lady behind the counter says she’s reading the book, and asks:

‘But isn’t this the first time he’s based a character on you?’

Mrs. March, still fingering her pocketbook, experienced a sudden numbness. Her face hardened just as her insides seemed to liquefy, so that she feared they might leak out. Patricia, oblivious, set her order on the countertop and tallied up the bill.

‘I . . .’ said Mrs. March, struck by a sliver or pain in her chest. ‘What do you mean?’

‘I mean . . . the main character.’ Patricia smiled. […]

‘But . . . the main character, it–isn’t she . . .’ Mrs. March leaned in and in almost a whisper said, ‘a whore?’

Patricia let out a loud, good-natured laugh at this.

‘A whore no one wants to sleep with?’ Mrs. March added.

‘Well, sure, but that’s part of her charm.’ Patricia’s smile faltered when she saw the expression on Mrs. March’s face. ‘But anyway,’ she continued, ‘it’s not that, it’s more . . . the way she says things, her mannerisms, even, or the way she dresses?’

Mrs March is disgusted and embarassed and rushes out of the shop.

Now Mrs. March (always properly punctuated) is George’s second wife. They got married in a civil ceremony, ‘at which her mother scoffed to this very day between spells of dementia.’ George had a daughter, Paula, now 23, with his first wife and Mrs. March dreads her weekend visits, ‘Even in her absence the air still carried Paula’s scent: that milk, flowery, entitled smell that resisted the bergamot room spray spritzed frantically by Mrs. March throughout the apartment.’ However, Mrs. March does have a child of her own, Jonathan, ‘a messy and occasionally pouty child, but he was quiet and thoughtful and smelled modestly of fresh laundry and soccer-field grass.’ She sort of misses him while he’s away at camp.

Meanwhile Mrs. March has a party to plan for George and his publishers, and in a nod to Mrs. Dalloway, she had gone to the florist herself to collect the flowers. The party seems to go well, but she drinks too much, and afterwards asks George if he based Johanna on her. George prevaricates, says they may have certain things in common, at which Mrs. March scoffs: ‘Which lovely part of myself do I share with the whore?’ That’s enough to drive George to sleep on the sofa in his study.

Things are about to get stranger. George has a friend with a cabin in a small town in Maine where the two often go hunting. When Mrs. March finds a clipping in George’s study about a young woman that was murdered nearby, her paranoia which she’d barely kept under control is well and truly stoked – and she jumps to what to her was an obvious conclusion – that George had gone to the cabin the weekend the girl was murdered – ergo George is the murderer.

From here onwards, the novel takes a more Gothic feel into definite Shirley Jackson / Patricia Highsmith territory, as Mrs. March becomes more suspicious than ever of George and her own mental state deteriorates. The situation gets more complicated, more nasty, more paranoid with each turn of the page.

The character of Mrs. March is just so well observed. She comes from a stratum of New York female society that is hidebound by rules, this is no mere comedy of manners – although the novel is actually very funny. By contrast to the women, George has that easy charm to him, perfectly at home in this milieu, he is successful, he doesn’t seem to realise the pressure that his wife is under. Don’t forget she’s the second, younger, but not more beautiful wife – in this she reminded me of the second Mrs. De Winter in Rebecca. The second Mrs. De Winter isn’t a woman who imagines she’s scorned in the same way as Mrs. March though.

Making Mrs. March the narrator totally envelops the reader in her precarious emotional state, imagining that everyone is seeing her as Johanna. Add her suspicions about her husband and it all ferments in her brain as the novel races towards its wickedly dark climax. Once begun, this novel will surely grip you as it did me – and coming in at just under 300 pages, the pacing is superb. Amazingly it’s a debut by Spanish author Feito, who writes in English! (BTW, Elizabeth Moss is pencilled in for the adaptation – perfect!). (10/10)

Don’t just take my word for it, check out reviews by Susan, Kimbofo and Tony.

Source: Own copy. 4th Estate hardback, BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

12 thoughts on “Excuse me, but there’s a cockroach crawling up your skirt!

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Thanks for the link, Annabel. So glad you loved this one, and that cover is a triumph. Just for once, I can’t wait to see the adaptation. I’m sure Elizabeth Moss will be brilliant in it.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Unreliable narrator – the words I was searching for and couldn’t come up with for some reason – she certainly is that!

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