Walter Hartright is an art teacher looking for a situation because art don't pay. A friend finds him a cozy job teaching drawing to two young ladies. While travelling to his destination, at night... alone, he stumbles upon a woman dressed (take a guess) in white. She's kind of freaky and after she scurries away, two guys take off after her, claiming she's escaped from a mental asylum.
Walter is shaken up and his curiosity piqued by the mysterious lady especially after he discovers how much the strange woman resembles one of his students, Miss Laura Fairlie. Laura is pretty, blond, quiet, useless and completely uninteresting- of course, he falls madly in love with her. But, alas! it's not to be! Laura is engaged to a baron and, even though she is miserable about it, must marry him because she told her dead father she would. Tears!
Walter travels to South America to mend his broken heart but Laura is now in the clutches of Sir Percival Glyde and Count Fosco. She is a helpless damsel in distress. What to do! Her sister Marian, a capable, mannish brunette (who nobody loves because who can love a brunette?), tries to protect her but how can she, a woman, save Laura from the fiendish plot that ensnares them all? Oh Walter, where are you?!
My mom is a serious soap opera fan so I grew up on the stuff. I'm pretty sure the plot of The Woman in White has been used a million times by soap opera writers. Sinister foreign dude? Check! Amnesia? Check! Twins? Sort of! Collins knew how to write a pot boiler with gothic elements and I ate the whole thing up. Even if the plot felt familiar, there were quite a few plot twists I did not see coming.
The Woman in White is a epistolary novel told through a series of letters, diaries and legal documents written by several of the characters, all documenting what happened to Laura and Anne Catherick. Walter starts things off by writing the events as he remembers them. He's a dog with a bone; that guy just doesn't give up. I admired Walter's ability to track down each clue to prove to the world that this crime actually occurred. The only thing I didn't like about Walter was his love for Laura. Seriously, this girl has all the personality of a chesterfield. She gets moved around like a pretty piece of furniture. But it's the Victorian era and that's how they like 'em. Docile and dumb. Interestingly, she takes no part in the narrative even though the story is all about her. The reader is only shown Laura through others' eyes.
Laura's one admirable quality is her devotion to Marian. Marian shares the diary she kept while Walter was in South America. She is all that stands between Laura and doooooom! In fact, the only way anyone can get the better of her is when she is incapacitated. Count Fosco even proclaims great esteem for her intellect. A final showdown between her and Fosco would have been exciting but when Walter returns she's relegated to little more than housekeeper. "Time to let the men do the dirty work, Marian, to the kitchen you go (pat, pat)." I liked Walter and Marian so much I wanted to rewrite the ending and have Walter grab her in his arms and declare, "It was you I loved all along, Marian!" But, no.
Count Fosco, to give you an idea of the kind of guy he is, is a lot like Stefano DiMera, the villain from Days of Our Lives, only much more flamboyant. The guy wears a cape and keeps his pet mice in his pocket. He's completely without any scruples and is the brains behind the Fiendish Plot. He definitely keeps things interesting.
The Woman in White isn't a book you're going to finish in a couple of days. It's a big book, about 500 pages, and the writing is full of detail. At times I just wanted Collins to get on with it, but the last couple hundred pages made my patience worth it. Plot twists aplenty! It's a perfect creepy read for Halloween.