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Review: The Mother-In-Law by Sally Hepworth

The Mother-in-Law 
Sally Hepworth
St Martin’s Press
2019, 352p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

Someone once told me that you have two families in your life – the one you are born into and the one you choose. Yes, you may get to choose your partner, but you don’t choose your mother-in-law. The cackling mercenaries of fate determine it all.”

From the moment Lucy met Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana is exquisitely polite, but Lucy knows, even after marrying Oliver, that they’ll never have the closeness she’d been hoping for.

But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice, the matriarch of a loving family. Lucy had wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.

That was ten years ago. Now, Diana has been found dead, leaving a suicide note. But the autopsy reveals evidence of suffocation. And everyone in the family is hiding something…

I love the quote at the beginning of the blurb here – you can choose your partner, but you don’t get to choose the family they come with. And yeah, it’s true, you only marry the person. But when you marry someone, a whole bunch of other stuff comes along with it. Their family dramas and dynamics become a minefield to navigate and it’s so easy for misunderstandings and conflicts to arise.

Which is what Sally Hepworth tackles so admirably in this novel. Lucy meets Oliver through work and she hopes that when they become engaged, she can develop a real relationship with his mother Diana. Lucy lost her mother as a teenager and she longs for that maternal bond. Diana however, is a difficult woman to get to know. Oliver comes from a wealthy, privileged background and Diana is every inch the formidable matriarch. Not warm, she holds Lucy at arms length and the two of them never really hit it off. Over the years as the grandchildren appear, things ebb and flow, fleeting moments of understanding contrasting with aggression that even once becomes physical.

Now police officers have arrived at Oliver and Lucy’s house to tell them that Diana has been found dead in the family home and a suicide note discovered as well. Diana has struggled since losing Oliver’s father to illness and although she retains passion for her work helping refugees, she hasn’t been the same. It soon becomes apparent though that everyone in the family seems to be hiding something – whether it be their last known interaction with Diana or something else. Maybe Diana didn’t commit suicide after all…..but with everyone seemingly having motive and opportunity, if someone did help her on her way, which one of them was it?

This book was a ride. It’s told in a back-and-forth kind of way, beginning in the present and then taking the reader back in time to Lucy meeting Diana, when she and Oliver get engaged, the birth of their children and various other moments over the years. It also includes both Lucy and Diana’s points of view, including several of the same incidents told from both perspectives. So at first you get Lucy’s impression of Diana and her feelings on various incidents that happen over the course of her marriage to Oliver and then later on you get Diana’s life story and also her side of the same incidents. I found that really interesting and it really served to highlight how two people can experience the same moment and see it completely differently. I really appreciated that because so often a book will present to you one side of the story and doesn’t always delve into the other side and it’s the same in life. You have your side and how you perceive the other side is feeling but……chances are, you’re probably wrong. This book demonstrates admirably I think, how both Lucy and Diana tried to have the relationships they wanted with each other respectively and how each felt that they were constrained by certain rules or societal customs and the fact that they were just different people with different ideas that prevented them from really developing things more intimately.

I found this such an intriguing mystery – more and more layers unfolded with the plot. Did Diana really commit suicide? I enjoyed the portrayal of her marriage and how it came about and also, how things at first glance were not really accurate! Then you factor in her personal wealth, the way in which she chose to view that wealth and her work and disgruntled family members and all of a sudden, there are a myriad of possibilities for what happened to Diana. This is not a particularly long book, but there’s not a word wasted and I find that this is quite regular in Sally Hepworth’s novels. She is able to tell a really detailed and involved story with intricate plot points and multiple points of view, without getting bogged down in extra details and dragging it out. Everything that happens, happens for a reason and ends up being relevant. It’s the sort of sharp, observant novel that I absolutely adore. Excellent portrayal of realistic family relationships and dynamics and all the complications that come along with them. This ended up being so much more than just the story of a woman whose mother-in-law dies in what perhaps are suspicious circumstances. I found a lot to mull over in this, especially the conditions of Diana’s will and how that would make people feel. I also really liked the inclusion of her work with refugees and how that evolved to become such a key part of the story, particularly looking to the future.

All in all, this was a brilliant story and I loved it. Sally Hepworth’s books always have me hooked from beginning to end and I just admire her storytelling abilities. I always look forward to a new book of hers and they never disappoint!


Book #54 of 2019

The Mother-In-Law is the 26th book read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019