New York Times bestselling author Maria Dahvana Headley presents a modern retelling of the literary classic Beowulf, set in American suburbia as two mothers—a housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—fight to protect those they love in The Mere Wife.
From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildings—high and gabled—and the community is entirely self-sustaining. Each house has its own fireplace, each fireplace is fitted with a container of lighter fluid, and outside—in lawns and on playgrounds—wildflowers seed themselves in neat rows. But for those who live surreptitiously along Herot Hall’s periphery, the subdivision is a fortress guarded by an intense network of gates, surveillance cameras, and motion-activated lights.
For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot (heir of Herot Hall), life moves at a charmingly slow pace. She flits between mommy groups, playdates, cocktail hour, and dinner parties, always with her son, Dylan, in tow. Meanwhile, in a cave in the mountains just beyond the limits of Herot Hall lives Gren, short for Grendel, as well as his mother, Dana, a former soldier who gave birth as if by chance. Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren, and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him at bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.
"Everyone might be a monster underneath their skin," thinks Dana Mills, a character in this clever reimagining of Beowulf as a mordant glimpse of the mores of contemporary suburbia. Dana is a maimed ex-soldier who lives in an abandoned railroad tunnel above her hometown, Herot Hall, with Gren, her son, through whom the author, by being intentionally vague about his appearance, emphasizes the idea that monstrousness is in the eye of the beholder. When Gren befriends Dylan "Dil" Herot (Gren and Dil's names combine to sound much like Grendel, one of the antagonists in Beowulf), the young son of descendants of the town's founder with whom he shares a close bond, the stage is set for a dramatic face-off between Dana and local cop Ben Woolf. When Ben is called to investigate Dana and Dil's unintended disruption of a Christmas party at the Herots', he interprets it as a home invasion that must be avenged. Headley (Magonia) applies the broad contours of the Beowulf story to her tale but skillfully seeds her novel with reflections on anxieties and neuroses that speak to the concerns of modern parenting. Her narrative leaps between grisly incidents of violence and touching moments of motherly love that turn her tale's source material inside out and situate it in a recognizable modern landscape where, as Ben accepts, "the world isn't large enough for monsters and heroes at once."