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Book Review: “The Death of Jane Lawrence” and gothic romance

Ever since the gothic-romance film “Crimson Peake” was released in 2015, I have searched for novels that emulate the same atmosphere Guillermo del Toro captured. Caitlin Starling’s 2021 novel “The Death of Jane Lawrence” was meant to fill that void as it was marketed as a “Crimson Peake-inspired story” meets Shirley Jackson’s “Rebecca.”

Jane Shoringfield knows her time as a single woman is coming to an end. The most secure path forward is a marriage of convenience that will allow her to remain independent and continue working. The reclusive and unassuming Dr. Augustine Lawrence is at the top of her list of potential matches. He agrees on one condition: Jane must never visit his family home, Lindridge Hall. After a disastrous wedding night, she becomes stranded on his doorstep and finds Augustine a changed man, and things lurk in the shadows of the crumbling house.

Her stay at Lindridge Hall spirals out of control as ghosts descend upon her and Augustine. In a desperate attempt to save her husband, Jane is forced to undertake a dangerous task to restore order to her and Augustine’s life¬–at the possible expense of her own.

I’m a sucker for unlikeable and jarring female characters–and Jane Lawrence is a stellar example of this characterization. Her practicality, arrogance, and stubbornness are frowned upon in the novel. Still, they are a welcome change to the horror genre. Her love for Augustine clearly drives her through the novel–and although I would typically shirk at this characterization–I found it equally fascinating and irritating to watch this protagonist go against her somewhat feminist nature.

Starling’s detail-oriented prose is reminiscent of classic gothics, yet the horror elements were lackluster compared to her style. Initially, “The Death of Jane Lawrence” seemed to be heading in the direction of a gothic ghost story–but diverged into a black magic/cult/drug-induced tale that felt out of place. All of the pieces were lined up from the beginning for this to be a gory retelling of “Crimson Peake, " yet Starling yanked them out from under us. Despite the confusing foundation, the novel was beautifully well-written and atmospheric–but the suspense and fear were minimally capitalized upon.

On top of the confusing horrors, Jane’s character growth and the ending were unclear and utterly disappointing. Although Starling’s author’s note clarifies Jane’s development, the reasoning felt out of character for Jane and like a consolation gift for readers after the overall confusion of “The Death of Jane Lawrence.”

The diverging paths Starling takes throughout “The Death of Jane Lawrence” should have been cut down–the plot and narrative were laid out before her but discarded for a disappointing and confusing storyline. A gory let-down and poorly planned novel, “The Death of Jane Lawrence” had all the makings of being a trailblazer in gothic romance but puttered out.

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