The Vicar's Wife came along at just the right time for me. I had finished The Pilgrim's Progress, which was a struggle and I had been doing some other heavy reading, including American Psychosis, which is about the problems with America's mental health treatment system, and believe me there are many. I've also been secretly reading Tony Judt's gut-wrenching Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945. (By secretly I mean I haven't reported it to Goodreads yet.)
In any case, I needed a book that is not lightweight but not too challenging. The Vicar's Wife is just that. It's the story of Jane Hatton, a New Yorker who has moved to Cumbria with her English husband after 16 years of married life in New York City. Jane doesn't want to leave her demanding and fulfilling job or her challenging but deeply rewarding city. Andrew, who teaches engineering at Columbia, has always wanted to go back to England and Jane doesn't feel like she can say no to him now, although neither she nor their three children are eager to bury themselves in the far northwest of England in a cold, dark, wet, windy town.
Jane tries to adapt to life in the old vicarage in Goswell, but she longs to return to her bustling city that never sleeps. She finds it hard to get to know other women in town and she suspects her children, especially Nadia, a sulky teenager, are having trouble at school. Andrew, a man with a sunny disposition, seems oblivious to her unhappiness.
But Jane is not the vicar's wife of the title. That's Alice James, who in 1930 married the vicar of Goswell and moved to the house where Jane's family is now trying to settle down. When Jane finds a scrap of paper behind a slate shelf in the "cold" pantry (where food would have been kept in the 30s) she becomes curious about the woman who wrote the list and what her life was like.
As she begins poking around, asking questions, Jane feels a kind of empathy with Alice. She suspects that her predecessor was not happy in this house either and slowly learns her story. Talking with a woman who was the housekeeper after Alice's time and an old man who was resident there as a boy and knew Alice, Jane discovers the joys and sorrows of Alice's life in Goswell.
Meanwhile she makes a trip back to New York City and finds that her children don't really want to go back even for a visit. Does she know her children at all? And what about her own feelings about the city and her old job? She still longs for the rewards that her old life brought her, including a flavored Starbuck's coffee every morning. A small thing and seemingly superficial, but it represents so many things Jane has lost.
The narrative of this book uses a technique I particularly like. It switches back and forth from Jane to Alice with each alternating chapter and we slowly learn Alice's story as we watch Jane struggle to adapt to this new life. This is not a traditional love story -- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, etc. The story is not the marriage plot. It's the story of two women coming to recognize who they are, how to adapt to difficulty and change, and what is important in their lives. The very thing for a rainy fall day.
A review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.