Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Review: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

If I saw a gate, wreathed in fog, and swirling with magpies like on the cover of Ruth Ware's The Death of Mrs. Westaway, I would high tail it right back to my comfortable, safe existence and try to forget what I'd seen. I almost felt this way about picking up and reading this novel too. Would it be too creepy for me? Would it give me nightmares? Would I be able to read it with both eyes open and/or after dark? It turns out I didn't really have all that much to worry about, especially since one (or more!) of the major plot points was telegraphed incredibly early on in the book, making the rest of it feel less scary over all.

Harriet (Hal) Westaway reads tarot cards on the Brighton pier, barely eking out a living after the death of her mother in a hit and run. The season has turned so she doesn't have many customers. What she does have is a big, looming debt that she cannot repay, owed to a loanshark threatening violence if she defaults so when a letter arrives informing her of an inheritance from her recently deceased grandmother, it couldn't have come at a better time. Except the dead woman is not Hal's grandmother; her grandmother died years ago. Hal decides to go the funeral and Trepassen House anyway, and using her skills as a tarot reader who can bluff and intuit quite a lot about human beings thanks to their mannerisms and tells, perhaps still claim the inheritance. She is soon immersed in a spooky house, populated by her "uncles" and "aunt" and an ancient, surly housekeeper as she tries to figure out the secrets everyone is keeping in this spectacularly unhappy family, especially after she uncovers a very real connection between her mother and this disconcerting place.

Ware has created an interesting premise, filled it with menacing atmosphere, and set it in a gothic landscape. The weather reflects the story and her main character's (perhaps justified) paranoia is rising. The sense of foreboding should augur well for the story. But it doesn't. Hal is not nearly as prerceptive as the reader is told. In fact, she somehow discovers the truth despite her strangely self-aware bumbling, which is frustrating. The other characters are not particularly well drawn, making it hard to differentiate them from each other. The late Mrs. Westaway's character is a caricature of the spiteful, nasty mother and the ancient housekeeper mainly just shuffles around in a cloud of toxic suspicion, muttering gleefully dire warnings. The flat characters combined with the ponderously slow narrative made for a slog of a read for me. Many readers love Ruth Ware. I'm just not one of them.

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