Published by Gallery/Scout Press on April 30, 2019
"From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, and The Lying Game comes Ruth Ware's highly anticipated fourth novel. On a day that begins like any other, Hal receives a mysterious letter bequeathing her a substantial inheritance. She realizes very quickly that the letter was sent to the wrong person--but also that the cold-reading skills she's honed as a tarot card reader might help her claim the money. Soon, Hal finds herself at the funeral of the deceased...where it dawns on her that there is something very, very wrong about this strange situation and the inheritance at the center of it. Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware's signature suspenseful style, this is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time"--
If you follow me on social media, or at least run in the same circles as me, then you’ll know there was a point on Friday of this last week when I had made it about 100 pages into this book and plaintively asked on several Facebook groups, “does this shit ever pick up the pace?” – I said it more sweetly and very demure, of course. I’m a delicate, feminine flower. About half the people told me it would if I stuck with it, and others still said it never did, or that they had given it the dreaded “DNF” designation and shelved it for eternity.
I was bored at the laundromat that afternoon, though, so I plodded gamely forward – though I was admittedly wondering if I would regret having chosen another Ware book as my Book of the Month book for August. I made it another 20-30 pages, and something inside of me clicked into place – I couldn’t put this book down, and I spent the last ~230 pages or so in a rapture, absolutely captivated by this storytelling. You got me, Ruth Ware – you got me.
How I’d Describe This Book to a Friend
Last summer’s theme seemed to be “shady shit going down at summer camps,” and this summer’s seems to be “impoverished young women making questionable decisions to get money.” First it was Lock Every Door, and now it’s Mrs. Westaway. In this case, our young narrator is Harriet “Hal” Westaway, a 21 year old slip of a girl who lost her mother in an accident a couple of years ago and has taken over her business reading tarot cards on the docks in her small, seaside town to make ends meet. The trouble is that ends are decidedly not meeting, and Hal has a loan shark about to come break her kneecaps in a week if she can’t come up with a couple thousand pounds.
When Hal receives a letter telling her that her grandmother has died and she is due to meet at the estate after the funeral, she assumes there has been some mistake – her grandparents died before she was born, or at least that’s what her mother had always told her. But Hal is desperate and cold and afraid of the kneecap-busting loan sharks, so she does what she’s good at – she lies.
The Death of Mrs. Westaway is roughly 350 pages (in the paperback version I got, anyway), and it takes a solid 150 pages for her to get to the funeral for her “grandmother.” This is where the book really starts to pick up – but before that, it drags its feet quite a bit. Where Mrs. Westaway shines is its characters – Hal’s grandmother has left behind her ancient housekeeper, as well as her three sons, their partners, and children. The other major player here is the house itself – Trepassen House, it’s named (as old English manors are wont to do), and it has a life of its own. There are secrets hidden behind the doors, and they are ones that the Westaway family had intended to stay buried.
Someone in this family knows too much, and they believe Hal does too. If they have anything to say about it, Hal won’t be around Trepassen House long enough to uncover anything, either.
The Bottom Line
Little things add up to a few good spine chills – Hal’s bedroom, with bars on the inside of the windows, and HELP ME etched into the glass of the window panes could make even the most braggadocios reader a little uncomfortable. But the problem with Mrs. Westaway is it just takes far too long to get there. Many people give up on this one before it has time to shine, and that is so disheartening because you can tell this is such a love letter to old, lush Victorian novels – stories like Rebecca and Jane Eyre, with rolling manors and creepy servants lurking around corners.
I had to draw a family tree on a post-it and keep it inside the cover, which is the other ding I have against this story. There are three brothers, Hal’s “uncles,” two of which have partners and only one of which has children. It shouldn’t be that hard to tell them apart, but they’re all virtually identical save one identifying factor for each – one is loud and burly, one is the gay one, and one is the young “too cool for this shit” brother. This made for a couple of times where there was a revelation and I thought “… who?” – oops. There is also the family’s lawyer who I know has a personality and a life, but all I can picture is Mr. Poe from A Series of Unfortunate Events.
This said, the scenery is lush and beautiful, and the characterization is great once you can figure out who is who. The last 50-odd pages had my heart in my throat, I was so nervous for Hal. You don’t know who to trust – it’s like watching a real-life game of Clue unfolding before your eyes, and you want to make a guess but you can’t because if you guess wrong then the game is over. There’s also some great metaphors unwinding here – the old children’s rhyme about counting magpies, and the undercurrent of a tarot reading is omnipresent in Hal’s mind, reminding her to keep her poker face and not let on that she’s full of shit. You really root for her, even if her decision-making skills are poor. I long for a crossover between Hal and Jules from Lock Every Door, so they can go make poor, dumb-ass decisions in old, creepy buildings together. I’d watch the hell out of that ABC Family show.
This book makes me want to go get a tarot card reading in an old, drafty Victorian manor. The problem is that it took 1/3 of the book to get me to that point. Read it, but know that it’s gonna be a minute before you get to the good parts – like eating one of those Drumstick ice creams with the chocolate in the very bottom of the cone.
“The cards do not predict the future. All thy can do is show us how a given situation may turn out, based on the energies we bring to the reading. Another day, another mood, a different set of energies, and the same question could have a completely different answer. We have free will. The answer the cards give can turn us in our path.”