The premise of this slim novel is to tell Bertha Rochester's side of the story. In Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhy imagines what life was like for the woman that would eventually be reduced to being the mad woman in the attic, an obstacle that prevents Jane Eyre's Rochester from getting what he wants. It is broken down into three parts, the first part focusing on Antoinette Cosway's upbringing in the West Indies, the second portraying Rochester's perspective of the early days of their marriage, and the final part is a few pages from Antoinette while in England locked up in the attic with her warden.
I liked the idea of this novel and the themes and connections within the novel more than the actual novel. The writing style had a bit of stream of consciousness to it, and I am not always a fan of that type of writing. Still, I thought the way Rhys set up Antoinette's character and background were rather illuminating. Growing up, Antoinette and her mother didn't fit in. The blacks disliked them, the whites looked down on them, and they were incredibly poor, especially with her father being deceased. One of the most defining moments of her childhood was the burning of their home (no wonder she would become fascinated with fire in her later years).
Antoinette comes across as a sensitive yet passionate girl that has never quite fit in. She is afraid of things, and she and her mother both have been misunderstood. Both repeatedly state that others do not understand what it's like on the island, neither her mother's second husband or Rochester, both of whom are outsiders and didn't grow up amidst the racial and class tension of the place.
Rochester and Antoinette's marriage starts out well enough but he soon finds reasons to dislike his wife, and lets himself be influenced by others because he wants reasons to dislike her. Their relationship goes sour, and Rochester refuses to acknowledge his wife's identity, even calling her by the wrong name.
I liked quite a lot of the ideas in this novel and the way Rhys develops the characters and the relationships, but I can't say that this is a novel I would read again for fun. I feel like it really would work best in a classroom setting or as a novel that is to be analyzed and compared with Jane Eyre. I think there is enough there that one could read it without having read Jane Eyre, but the older novel certainly adds more to the discussion.