Early in Mrs. March, the humorous new literary thriller by Virginia Feito, chosen as the screenplay by Elisabeth Moss, we get a telling detail about our eponymous heroine.
Upper East Side housewife Mrs. March, we learn, wearing mint green baby leather gloves. Moreover, she considers these gloves to be remarkably daring. They were a Christmas present from her husband, George, and Mrs. March loves them.
“She would never have chosen that color, not even believing that she could pull such a thing off,” Feito writes, “but she was thrilled by the fantasy that strangers, when they saw her wearing them, would assume that she was the kind of carefree, confident woman who would have chosen such a bold color for herself. ”
Penetrated into this compact little anecdote is a whole wealth of information about Mrs. March. Like the nameless Mrs. de Winter in the thriller Rebecca, Mrs March has a dull, self-destructive personality, so much so that she does not even consider a first name. Incidentally, she is ashamed that strangers think she is boring, and longs to be exciting, charismatic, effortlessly charming. So skewed is her frame of reference for excitement and danger that she believes mint green gloves can be a meaningful step towards glamor.
Mrs. March finds herself in a special need for glamor, for when the novel opens, she is learning something humiliating. Her novelist has based the main character in her latest novel on her. Mrs. March is unmistakably captured: her approaches, her looks, her habit of wearing gloves all the time. But the comparison is not flattering.
The main character in George’s novel is a prostitute that no one wants to sleep with. She is covered in sores and bad smells and her few clients pay her out of pity and refuse to touch her. Her name is the title of George’s book: Johanna. (Even the book within a book gets a first name! But Mrs. March does not.)
What follows from this revelation is a little bit Hitchcock, a little bit Patricia Highsmith, a little bit “The yellow wallpaper.” Feito’s cool, elegantly crafted prose seems to place us sometime in the middle of the century, the era of icy, oppressed housewives who go insanely crazy, and Mrs. March does not disappoint. She is furious at George’s treatment of her and has no apparent understanding of how to deal with that rage.
Mrs. March begins to imagine that every person she knows and every stranger on the street must have read Georg’s book must be familiar with her shame. She begins to suspect that George may be behind a mysterious murder in Maine. She also begins to see doppelgängers – by herself, by George, by the murdered girl – crawling through her tasteful apartment to see its walls covered with dead pests.
Her narrative seems to gradually clear up and become less and less reliable as we read. The only thing that is clear is that she is leading us relentlessly and without seeming to know why, towards something bloody.
Mrs. March is a sneaky brutal book, a scream almost drowned by a whisper. Feito begins the story with pin-sharp stings on Mrs. March’s contemporary snobbery and self-awareness, so short and so pointed that it is simply hilarious. In the first 10 pages alone, Mrs. March does not confront a woman standing in line in front of her, a servant tells her that she is waiting for a non-existent friend not to be called out to eat alone, and remembers early meetings with George, since she did not want to “jinx” anything “with her personality.” She’s such a doormat that you’re inclined to mock her rather than sympathize with her – but as Feito builds to her climax and Mrs March begins to fall apart, you begin to wonder if all the early needle sticks are not. was directed at you all the time.
If there’s one big flaw here, it’s it Mrs. March seems if something is too clearly intended to end up on the screen. Mrs. March’s interior is reproduced almost exclusively in hallucinations and dark images pre-translated into a visual medium. Her manners and weaknesses simply cry for being portrayed by an actress over 40 who wants to pick up an Emmy in a prestigious cable miniseries. (Elisabeth Moss already called dibs, but I would love to see what Cate Blanchett could do here.) Feito’s prose never falters, but she also does not seem inclined to take advantage of the artistic possibilities the novel can offer television can’t: psychology expressed through text instead of e.g. Pictures.
Yet there is a relentless build-up to this book, a gnawing fear that sets in early and never completely gives up. And between Feito’s silver polish sentences and her eerie psychological acumen, you will not want it. Instead, you read Mrs. March the way Mrs. March imagines everyone around her reading Johanna: eager until you get to know his heroine with a terrible, unbreakable intimacy.
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