ARC Review: The Late Mrs. Willoughby by Claudia Gray

  • Title: The Late Mrs. Willoughby
  • Author: Claudia Gray
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • Release Date: 5/16/23
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Age Range: Adult
  • Rating: ★★★
  • Publisher’s Summary: 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.

I am a huge Jane Austen fan. I started reading her books when I was 11, and I fell even more in love with her work when I studied it in college. I loved the idea of bringing her characters together in The Murder of Mr. Wickham. The second book in the series, The Late Mrs. Willoughby, just doesn’t live up to Austen’s work.

The Murder of Mr. Wickham is fun because it brings together the protogonists of all of Austen’s work. Mr. Wickham is a prominent “bad guy” from Pride and Prejudice, so it makes sense for his death to be the focus of a story featuring all of the Austen heroines. The Late Mrs. Willoughby loses some of that spark. Mr. Willoughby is a similar kind of “villain” to Wickham in Sense and Sensibility, so it feels a little too similar in concept to the first book. Additionally, it’s not even Willoughby himself who is the victim, but his wife.

The portrayals of Austen’s characters in some cases didn’t feel quite right. I think of Elinor Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility as a strong and smart woman. In The Murder of Mrs. Willoughby, she is portrayed as kind of helpless and sidelined by pregnancy. Of course, I understand that Regency society dicated certain restrictions for pregnant women, but this Elinor had no fire. Similarly, Willoughby in this story wants Marianne back, and I didn’t get the sense that the Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility cared about Marianne at all.

There are also too many storylines woven through the book. Of course, it makes sense to have an A and B plotline, but it is overwhelming in The Murder of Mrs. Willoughby. There is the plot about Edward’s conflict with the rest of the Ferrars family, the story about Beth Williams, and others on top of the primary murder plot. It ends up feeling a little convaluted.

The romantic tension between Juliet and Jonathan is sweet, but it never pays off. In both the first book in the series and The Murder of Mrs. Willoughby, it is clear that they like one another, but neither does anything about it. I was hoping for an Austen-style declaration of love, but alas…

I do love that Juliet Tilney is a detective in these books. Her mother, Catherine, sees herself as a detective in Northanger Abbey, so it makes sense to see Juliet eager to solve the murders in this series. The reader gets a lot more backstory on Jonathan Darcy than Juliet, which is a shame.

As an Austen fan and a murder mystery fan, I wanted to love this series. The idea has such potential, but it falls short.

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