Book review: The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth

Monday, January 28, 2019 Permalink

Sally Hepworth’s books seem to be getting better and better… or more likely, they were always good and perhaps my taste is changing or evolving.

I usually prefer mysteries or thrillers and The Mother-in-Law isn’t quite that. I mean, it is about a death – a potential murder and the lead-up to it… so there’s an element of suspense, but it’s so much more. In many ways it’s a complex study of relationships: those between husband and wife or lovers; between parents and children; between siblings; between colleagues and friends; and (of course) those with our in-laws. 

Book review: The Mother-in-Law by Sally HepworthThe Mother-in-Law
by Sally Hepworth
Published by Macmillan Australia
on January 29th 2019
Source: PanMacmillan
Genres: General Fiction, Women's Fiction
ISBN: 1760552186, 9781760552183
Pages: 352

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...

As a complete aside, as a single woman with just one brother, the only (direct) in-law I have is a sister-in-law, so my life isn’t fraught with extended family and the complicated relationships with come with them. I probably benefit (in fact) from being an objective observer in this case… watching my friends as they grapple with the sensitivities and nuances of (in-law) relationships (not to mention years of primary-family baggage amassed before they even came on the scene!).

One of the many things I liked about this book though, is that Hepworth places us in the heads of both Lucy and Diana. So there’s no mother-in-law (MIL) bashing or DIL moaning and our perception isn’t tainted by one point-of-view. Rather we see how easily misunderstandings can take place and events and actions can be misconstrued.

In many ways Lucy’s expectations of her mother-in-law are a tad unrealistic as she thinks she’s finally going to have the mother she’s wanted since her own passed.

She doesn’t realise that Diana was never dotingly maternal so feels slighted by her MIL’s actions, despite knowing others find Diana prickly and awkward. In reality, most of their discomfort (and even conflict) is the result of misunderstandings and personality differences rather than anything more hostile.

Hepworth slowly builds the tension through flashbacks… so we’re ready for the relationship to devolve into something bitter and adversarial. And it does happen to an extent, but there are a few surprises thrown in and I very much enjoyed where she takes it.

Of course there’s a sense of sadness or regret and we realise that misunderstandings and relationship breakdowns often result from poor communication and things that remain unsaid… and that we really shouldn’t leave things until until it’s too late. That we CAN run out of time.

Many will probably relate very much to the relationships in the book as both Lucy and Diana talk to friends about their in-laws and comparisons are made. I was also interested in the relationship between Lucy’s husband Oliver and his parents and there’s an entire backstory giving us insight into the Diana we meet now. The one who’s so generous and compassionate to refugees and their families, but refuses to help her own family fearing their sense of privilege.

The support cast is really well developed, including Ollie, his father Tom as well as his sister Nettie and her husband. This is not a story told in isolation, instead it unfolds through the quagmire of extended family.

I have to admit I found Nettie’s storyline a tad confronting. I’m kinda offering spoilers here but she’s desperate to have a child and becomes obsessed about it. We all know people who’ve been there, and I most certainly struggled when I was going through fertility treatments myself. And as someone who does not have children some of Nettie’s thoughts really hit home for me as I think them often.

Who are we after we’ve gone? I wonder. It’s a good question to ponder. Most people can’t come up with an answer right away. They frown, consider it for a minute. Maybe even sleep on it. Then the answers start to come. We’re our children, of course. Our grandchildren. Our great-grandchildren. We’re all the people who will go on to live because we lived. We are our wisdom, our intellect, our beauty filtered through generations, continuing to spill into the world and make a difference.

People may not articulate it exactly like this, but ultimately they will end up with some version of the it. Then they can rest secure in their contribution, certain that their lives will not be devoid of meaning. But not me. I’ll go to my death with no idea if my life had meaning. To anyone.

I was kinda sad and regretful at the end of this book, which I think is where Hepworth is trying to guide us. There’s some closure for the characters (and us) but there’s certainly no happily-ever-after for everyone involved. She doesn’t take the easy way out and again (obviously) doesn’t shy away from sensitive issues or sugarcoat life, which is something I very much appreciate.

The Mother-in-Law by Sally Hepworth will be published in Australia by Pan Macmillan and available from 29 January 2019.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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