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In 'Mrs. March,' A Judgmental, High Society Woman Is Gaslit To The Brink Of Madness

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You know that feeling sometimes when you're wondering, is it all just in my head? Well, that unsettling feeling takes on a life of its own inside the mind of Mrs. March, a woman who has spent her entire life adhering to the rules of high society on the Upper East Side of New York. One day, her tidy, respectable life is thrown into disarray when a shopkeeper wonders out loud if Mr. March, a famous novelist, based the main character of his new book on his wife. Mrs. March is aghast at this because...

VIRGINIA FEITO: (Reading) The main character - isn't she - Mrs. March leaned in and, in almost a whisper, said, a whore?

CHANG: That is Virginia Feito, the author of the new novel "Mrs. March," a story that walks a sometimes blurry line between what's real and what's imagined. Virginia Feito joins us now. Welcome.

FEITO: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited.

CHANG: We're excited to have you.

FEITO: Thanks. That was my drama degree speaking before, by the way.

CHANG: I love it.

FEITO: So sorry.

CHANG: I love that you channel your inner actress. So first, just set us up with a portrait of the marriage at the center of this story. Like, what are George March and Mrs. March like as a couple?

FEITO: Well, I don't think they're a very happy couple, for starters. So he's a very successful author. She is his doting, prim, pretty anxious wife. And they've been married for quite a few years. But, I mean, they don't seem to know each other very well at all. This might be, I think, both their faults. Mrs. March has been pretending to be the best version of herself she can possibly kind of put on for him ever since they met, and George just doesn't seem super-interested in her to begin with, either.

CHANG: And it becomes really clear at the outset that Mrs. March is also this woman who is obsessed with appearances. Like, her mother taught her, quote, "a healthy marriage is built from the outside in, not the other way around." What do you think her mom meant by that?

FEITO: Well, firstly, that's kind of the opposite of what my mom has always told me. You know, marriage is hard work. And you should always focus on the important stuff, what's inside and emotions and feelings, and talk it out and whatever. And obviously, Mrs. March's mother has taught her the very opposite. You know, maybe the important, you know, therapy side of it - feelings and talking and all of that - isn't really worth it. You know, it's more about what people can see.

CHANG: Well, you know, I have to say at first I wanted to feel sorry for Mrs. March because she's, like, this woman who's really weighed down by people's expectations. But then as you're reading this novel, it becomes very clear that while she's afraid of judgment, she also kind of revels in judging others, doesn't she?

FEITO: Oh, absolutely. She's not a very nice person at all.

CHANG: No.

FEITO: I love to see how sort of far I could push it so - to see, you know, how much sympathy people could feel for her in the end. I mean, to me, she's absolutely unredeemable by the end of the book. But there are a lot of people who are finding her very sympathetic. And, I mean, I understand. You know, it's not her fault. She hasn't been taught, you know, how to live, basically. And she's so insecure. And her mother has taught her all these very horrible, misguided things about marriage and lives and relationships. So I do feel for her. I do. And yet, you know, I also stuffed her with, like, all of my horrible qualities that I dislike about myself and blew them up and did not give her any of my - what I hope are my redeeming qualities. So I really just really dislike her. So, you know, I'm glad you do, too.

CHANG: Well, you know, what happens over time after this suggestion that the main character of her husband's new book is based on her is that Mrs. March starts to lose her mental faculties. And can I just say, I was trying to picture this character as a man, like, a man with the same brittleness and paranoia. And I struggled to picture that because unfortunately, the Mrs. March archetype is so recognizable as a woman, right?

FEITO: Yeah. It's so funny you say that because it would be - I'd love a Mr. March sort of remake of it and see what problems he faces in the surrounding - you know, and the pressures that men face, I guess, in the privileged world sphere. But, yeah, absolutely I can recognize, you know, a lot of her insecurities and traits in women that surround me and in myself as well. They're very feminine - aren't they? - to do with their weight and their bodies and their...

CHANG: Right, and the whole reliance on a man for stature and belonging. I'm just wondering, now that we're in a post-#MeToo world, how do you want readers to take in a character like Mrs. March today, a woman like Mrs. March?

FEITO: That's interesting you say that because I did have the #MeToo thing in mind when I was writing it because there were a lot of books that were being written - I don't know quite how to say this without - no spoilers, I guess. But, you know, there's a lot of literature that was being written that had this trope about the woman who is kind of going crazy. And, you know, it is revealed more often than not, in the end, there's a man behind it, and she is innocent. And I kind of - I knew I wanted to set out to write a book that was a little bit different, that will maybe set those tropes a little bit on their head. I didn't want to have the female character driven crazy necessarily by a man. I thought, you know, we don't need men to gaslight us. We can gaslight ourselves.

CHANG: But when we are talking about the archetype that Mrs. March represents, I mean, is that a woman in control or totally out of control? What kind of power do you think she does have?

FEITO: Definitely she has been a victim of her upbringing and, you know, very cold, distant relationships throughout her life that haven't taught her how to establish any true connections. I mean, they say that scientifically, very young children and babies don't actually form physical connections in their brain when their relationships aren't warm enough throughout their childhoods. So there is that for sure. But also, you know, I think Mrs. March has come to a point where she kind of could be taking control of her own life a little bit or her own decisions and could kind of say, [expletive] this. You know, I'm going to therapy. I'm going to save myself.

And actually, there's a reason that I put Mrs. March in front of a mirror constantly throughout the novel repetitively because I'm kind of - I'm trying to get her to look at herself and to kind of see that she can save herself. And she repeatedly walks away from the mirror, or she stops looking at herself, or she avoids her reflection altogether. So I think there's definitely a mix. She's not just a victim here. You know, she's also kind of played into this victimhood, and she's refusing to crawl out of it, basically.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, you don't give Mrs. March a first name until the very last sentence of this book. Why was that?

FEITO: Mrs. March is defined throughout her life by, well, first her father when she's a young child and then her husband. And, of course, she's named Mrs. March throughout the entire book, even in flashbacks to her - to scenes from her childhood. And it's only when her very real, very core identity finally comes out, the real Mrs. March - that's when we finally learn her name because that's her. That's the one we haven't seen throughout the whole book. And unfortunately, she just comes out at the very, very end. So I guess maybe I should write a sequel now (laughter) as - like, to show the how her personality finally only then comes out.

CHANG: Only then emerges - it was such a delicious read. Virginia Feito's new book is called "Mrs. March."

Thank you so much for being with us today.

FEITO: Thank you so much for having me. I'm so excited. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE DRAGON SONG, "FEATHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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