Mrs March. By Virginia Feito. Liveright; 304 pages; $26. Fourth Estate; £14.99
AT FIRST, AS the protagonist finalises preparations for a party, Virginia Feito’s debut novel seems set to become a retelling of Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs Dalloway”. When the author has conveyed Mrs March’s prim personality, stifled emotions and conservative lifestyle, the book starts to resemble “Mrs Bridge”, Evan S. Connell’s wry depiction of American suburbia. As the tension builds, though, it becomes clear that this is neither a homage to a modernist masterpiece nor a comedy of manners but an original, darkly funny psychological drama.
Mrs March lives in an “agreeable” apartment on the Upper East Side with her writer husband George and their eight-year-old son. Everyone in Manhattan is reading George’s latest novel, including the woman behind the counter of Mrs March’s favourite pastry shop, who one morning asks if this is the first time he has based a character on her. Mrs March is appalled: Johanna, the character in question, is a sex worker, “a weak, plain, detestable, pathetic, unloved, unlovable wretch”.
This seemingly innocuous question tips Mrs March into a feverish state of paranoia and self-doubt. She hears the name Johanna everywhere and feels she is being watched and gossiped about. She also has a series of disturbing, distorted visions involving cockroaches, spiders, a dead pigeon and a blood-soaked neighbour. A long-suppressed memory of a childhood incident in Spain (where the author was born) wreaks more havoc in her warped mind: “The devil had gotten inside her that night in Cádiz, she decided with surprising aplomb, and somehow he was working his way into her home, like the cockroaches, through some imperceptible gap.”
Ms Feito is a teasing storyteller. Events unfold at an unspecified time in the past; the heroine’s first name is withheld until the book’s last line. Periodically the narrative becomes an elaborate guessing game, throwing out situations which may be real or figments of Mrs March’s imagination. Matters come to a head when she learns that a young woman has been found murdered in a small town in Maine—the same town her husband visited on a hunting trip. When she goes to investigate, the reader finds out if there is method in her madness.
Occasionally the story flags and the language is sometimes overwrought (snow falls “thoughtfully”; an apartment is “salivating and alert in its stillness”). But the atmosphere of queasy foreboding is compelling, as is the portrayal of a flawed, troubled and complex individual trying to keep it together while coming apart at the seams.
This article appeared in the Books & arts section of the print edition under the headline “The devil inside”