"The Death of Mrs. Westaway" by Ruth Ware
When I was 13 or so, I bought a Seventeen Magazine that contained, nestled among the glossy pictures of Jonathan Taylor Thomas and James Van Der Beek, a very rudimentary guide to palm reading.
Ever inquisitive, I read the guide carefully and inspected my own palm, trying to draw from every slope and imperfection some insight into what the future that stretched out before me might hold.
After “mastering” my skills on my own palm, I read the palms of friends, continually returning to this magazine, this article, until the wrinkled pages took on a fabric-like softness.
It was this stint as a (very) amateur amature palm reader that came immediately to mind when I was introduced to Hal, the protagonist of The Death of Mrs. Westaway, Ruth Ware’s newest novel.
Harriet, or Hal as she is known, lives a meager existence. Her only source of income is the little she can scrape together working as a tarot card reader on a vacation pier in England. And, while this work might be sufficiently sustaining in summer when the pier is flush with tourists, when it isn’t warm and sunny — so, basically, most of the time — she hardly brings in enough to pay the rent on her stall.
Hal has worked in this capacity since the unexpected death of her mother, who was mowed down in a hit and run several years prior. Since her mother’s passing, Hal has been alone in the world.
A ship without a port.
A girl without a long term plan — or, really, any plan, come to that.
But then, Hal experiences something to which she is unaccustomed — a bit of good luck. She receives a letter from a lawyer stating that Hal’s grandmother, Hester Westaway, has died and that, as a result, Hal is to receive an inheritance.
Wait. Not so fast.
There is a problem. (Obviously)
Hester Westaway isn’t Hal’s grandmother. And Hal knows it.
Aware that this is a mix up, and moral — even to a fault at times — Hal plans to inform the lawyer of his mistake.
That plan changes pretty fucking fast, though, when a leg-breaker for a local loan shark comes ‘round and informs Hal that if she doesn’t come up with money immediately things aren’t going to go well for her.
So Hal, feeling that she has basically no fucking choice, spends what little money she has left to buy a ticket to Penzance and, basically, crash the funeral for the woman she knows is not her grandmother in hopes that she’ll inherit a little bit of money so she can settle her debts and finally stop living so hand-to-mouth.
But when she gets to Penzance, sees the mysterious Trepassen mansion and meets the family of the recently deceased Mrs. Westaway, it becomes clear that things won’t be as simple as Hal had hoped.
Adding to the complication of this already complicated AF situation, Hal begins to find evidence that her mother — who, despite bearing the surname of Westaway, never mentioned her connection to the Westaway’s of Penzance — was actually a resident of Trepassen house at some point prior to Hal’s birth.
Trepassen House holds secrets, Hal quickly realizes. But why are these secrets buried so deeply? Who is desperate to keep these truths from being unearthed? And, perhaps most importantly, how great a length will this secret-keeper go to ensure that the truth doesn’t come out?
This is Ruth Ware’s fourth book, and I have read each and every one, so I feel a can safely consider myself a bit of a Ware aficionado. #HumbleBrag.
When I first saw this book come available for advanced reading I was excited, specifically because I feel that Ware’s growth as an author has resulted in a startlingly significant increase in quality from book to book. So I went into this book hoping — and, really, confident — that it would be her best yet.
So, was it?
Well, like my relationship with zombies… it’s complicated.
I mean, there were some definite strengths to this book.
The most significant of these strengths was the clear dedication of attention to the establishment of truly scintillating settings. Ware did an exceedingly effective job of capturing the natural mysticism of both the boardwalk on which Hal plyed her wares and the old, massive, and intimidating Trepassan House.
As I read, I could feel the cold in my joints, appreciate the sting of the surf on my skin, and all-but see the line of largely shuttered-for-the-winter shops laying just feet from the choppy surf.
Similarly, I felt authentic trepidation as Hal explored the dimly lit, windy hallways of Trepassen house — girl, go back to your room. This shit is scary and literally not one time ever did something good come out of exploring the dark hallway of a scary-ass ancient house. I also had had a palpable desire to leaf through the pages of the mysterious books that filled the long-ago-abandoned library.
Another clear strength was Ware’s development of her protagonist.
All told, I legitimately liked Hal as a character.
She was spunky.
She was strong.
She persisted where others might understandably have perished.
Honestly, I connected with her almost immediately, so it wasn’t difficult to become invested in her as a person.
I wanted her to be safe.
I wanted her to be successful.
I wanted her to not have her legs broken by the loan shark or be discovered to be a big fat fraud by this family.
I must say, though, while I never completely stopped caring about her, my affinity for her did wain a bit as the book went on. Unfortunately, much time was spent as the plot progressed discussing how Hal was wrestling with the choice that she made to deliberately defraud this family.
And, admittedly, I understand why Ware belabored this point.
She wanted us to like Hal.
She wants us to think of Hal as a moral person.
She wants us to think of Hal as someone who has a conscience.
That being said, there was quite a bit excessive time dedicated to the weighing of decisions and the deliberation regarding the potential impact of proceeding with her plan to knowingly mislead the family.
Ultimately, I found myself saying aloud “Listen, I get it. She feels bad. Can we move past this? Like, please?”
Granted, I didn’t say this aloud until, like, three glasses of wine in. Because, before that, #inhibitions.
Though slightly annoying — and IMO unnecessary — the continued return to Hal’s feelings of guilt was just a minor flaw.
The real Achilles heel of this book was the driving mystery itself. Unfortunately, it simply wasn’t quite thrilling enough to induce the chills that readers usually seek when they pluck a book off the shelf in the thriller/mystery section.
There were unanswered questions until nearly the end of the book, which should have been enough to keep me reading.
But, regrettably, I wasn’t sufficiently perturbed by the continued existence of these questions to really care what the answers ended up being.
And the fact that I didn’t care what the answer ended up being — in this rare case — was probably good. Because the most important answer — the one I had spent the entire book seeking — ended up being really, quite significantly, unsatisfying.
Despite these inarguably noteworthy concerns, I cannot write this book off entirely due, in large part to the fact that the writing was exceptionally solid, the vocabulary diverse and the protagonist endearing.
All things considered, the novel was good.
It was atmospheric.
It was engaging.
But it wasn’t the best book I’ve read all year, and it wasn’t the best work Ruth Ware has put out there into the world.
It gets 3 out of 5 cocktails.
Ware has, in my eyes, set quite a high bar for herself. Until she can match the strength of The Lying Game, it will be hard for me to justify rating another one of her works as highly as I did that one.
I’m pretty bummed that I didn’t end up loving this book because, as I mentioned, I did love Hal. Have you ever felt truly connected to a literary character? Tell me about it in the comments, below.