Friday, July 21, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List} Book Review: The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

by Karen S. Wiesner

In the 2021 Gothic romantic horror The Death of Jane Lawrence, Caitlin Starling presents an imaginary, dark-mirror world version of post-war England, approximate 1890s. Jane Shoringfield is a war orphan. Her parents were killed when "Ruzka" began gassing Camhurst, capital of Great Breltain. She was young and given into the care of the Cunninghams, who raised her. After attending Sharpton School for Girls until she was 15, she's been handling Mr. Cunningham's finances for the last six years. Jane is nothing if not practical. Being of a marriageable age and realizing her guardians will be moving to Camhurst within the month for Mr. Cunningham's new judgeship position, she's done her homework. Rather than engage in courtship that would require a level of foolishness she can't abide, she proposes to marry for convenience. Finding a partner who will merit from the practicality, if not the passion, of an arranged marriage becomes her goal.

The rumored reclusive Dr. Augustine Lawrence is ideal. This skilled surgeon could command a lucrative, lofty position anywhere, yet he's mysteriously chosen to set up a small-town family practice in Larrenton in the last several months. Jane submits to her potential fiancé a written business proposal that will benefit both of them.

The first chapter, with Jane meeting with Augustine for the first time to discuss the written marriage proposal she'd sent earlier, struck me as unrealistic, strange, and very nearly lost me. However, the Gothic setting with the mysterious hero who could equally qualify as the villain and the driven, practical Jane falling in love practically at first sight when she didn't expect to at all is what kept me reading. Whether initially against my will or voluntarily step by drudging step, I was drawn into this story from that point on and could hardly put it down.

At first, Augustine is taken aback by Jane's very unromantic proposal, but she quickly proves that her business acumen tempered with unfailing commonsense and her steady hand in the surgery are boons for any man who's avoided marriage as long as Augustine unfathomably has. The fact that the two of them are attracted to each other from the start disturbs both of them. But an agreement is quickly reached between them: Following their wedding, Jane will live in town at his practice while Augustine returns to his ancestral home, Lindridge Hall, alone each evening.

An unfortunate series of events forces the newlyweds to Lindridge Hall, where Jane has no choice about spending the night in the ruin and wreck of a house filled with ghosts and previously unimagined horrors. It's there that her brand new husband becomes transformed from the intelligent, compassionate man she'd assumed she was marrying into a agitated, broken figure with a tragic, dangerous, and even immoral past. The clues to Augustine's downfall begin to manifest with a padlocked basement, the red-eyed spirit of a betrayed lover, to the coven of doctors who dabble in black magic that show up on his doorstep.

One wonders if Jane's tenacity in attempting to fix the fractures that make up the man she rapidly falls for--despite her fear of him, his lies, and all he might have done to deserve the catastrophes he's brought upon himself--is wise or even warranted. Part of Jane's problem is that math rules her world just as the promise of magic once ruled her husband's. Instead of seeing math as magic, magic is seen as math in Jane's eyes, and this is an equation that she alone must balance--at all cost.

One of the most memorable scenes of The Death of Jane Lawrence came early on, and it was unknowingly a foreshadowing of all that was to come. When Augustine's patient dies, Jane, who has never before assisted in a surgery, blames herself for her inexperience and the way it distracted the doctor while he was trying to save a life. His reply captures the heart of this novel: "Jane, if the fault lies in anybody, it lies in me. I am the one with training and, more than that, I was the one in charge of the operating room. You cannot blame yourself. That shame is a path you cannot come back from, once you start down it…"

The author describes the difference between shame and guilt in this way (emphasis is mine): "Guilt is over something you have done; shame is over something that you are." In The Death of Jane Lawrence, shame is both a motivator and a horror that drives the pragmatic heroine to seek redemption for her beloved--even if he's a monster who may not deserve the forgiveness she seeks to procure for him, nor the happily ever after she wants for the two of them.

I admit, the end of the story became a frenzied, uncertain, blood-soaked mess in which I was never quite certain what was going on. I didn't believe for a second a joyful resolution was possible, yet strangely the author's love of "not happy endings" but "endings with potential" ultimately satisfied me.

Lovers of Gothic fiction complete with (if not loveable than nevertheless) likeable, compelling lead characters, and extreme amounts of horror and epic romance will enjoy this unconventional walk on the macabre side of love as much as I did.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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