Hello, everyone! I’m sure many of you have been drawn in by a bait-and-switch book, the type of novel that reels you in with an alluring cover, only to reveal its disappointing interior once you’re past the point of no return. Sally Hepworth’s The Mother-in-Law is one of those books. While the blurb sells the book as “a twisty, compelling new novel about one woman’s complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in death,” the reality is that this book is neither twisty nor compelling nor all that complicated. It’s a straight forward domestic drama marketed as a juicy thriller. Whether that’s the publisher’s fault or the author’s, I have no idea, but either way it doesn’t work in Hepworth’s favor.
Quick Synopsis: Lucy and her mother-in-law Diana have never gotten along. Disagreements over parenting and differing values have made what Lucy hoped would be a fulfilling relationship into a decade long Cold War. When Diana turns up dead, and the police are investigating it as a homicide, Lucy must confront her own memories of Diana for clues about her death, and reflect on her own views in the process.
My thoughts: The novel is told through two primary perspectives, Diana’s and Lucy’s, and set in the present and the past. While this constant time travel could have been confusing, Hepworth keeps the novel concise and clear. Her sharp-witted tone and simple prose make the novel a breezy read, which I appreciated, especially since the story itself wasn’t exactly enthralling.
I had two main issues with this book: lack of pay-off, and a hypocritical and unsympathetic main character. For the first issue, the lack of payoff stems from a tense first half of a novel that simmers into a candy-sweet ending. In the beginning of the book, Hepworth introduces us to the conflict between Lucy and Diana through a series of incidents that demonstrate their opposing world-views and personalities. Lucy is warm and eager to please her new mother-in-law, especially after the recent death of her own mother. On the other hand, Diana is quiet and reserved, and is better suited to understanding the emotions of the refugees involved in her charity than her own daughter-in-law. In real life, both characters would most likely have a cordial, if not loving relationship, but Hepworth transforms their differences into a vast crevasse, making every small slight or miscommunication seem like fodder for hatred.
Now imagine my surprise when the novel ends with both women reaching a loving mutual understanding. How did we go from enmity verging on violence (Lucy physically assaults Diana at one point in the novel) to a heartwarming mother and daughter bond? Hepworth is so determined to make her characters understand and appreciate each other that she ignores their underlying personality traits in favor of crafting a feel-good ending. And in the process, she villainized another character who, in my opinion, deserved a lot more sympathy than Lucy ever did. It makes the ending not only anti-climactic, but disingenuous, and I felt somewhat like I had been tricked.
My second main issue with the novel is the characterization of Diana. When we first see her through Lucy’s eyes, she seems cold and distant. It’s difficult for the reader to understand why she can’t embrace Lucy with the same warmth that Lucy has for her. As the novel continues, however, we learn that Diana’s outward coldness stems from difficulties she faced as a young woman when she was shunned by her family after deciding to keep her child out of wedlock. Because of this early trauma, she finds it difficult to warm up to people like Lucy, who she feels have always lived a life of privilege. Fair enough, and it’s an interesting background for a character to have.
Because Diana was disinherited at an early age and forced to fend for herself, she doesn’t believe in giving out financial handouts to her children. This reluctance to help her grown children financially, even when they’re desperately struggling, is a key theme of the book, and one of the reasons for much of the family drama. While I find this idea to be pretty appalling, I found Diana’s hypocrisy to be more unbearable. She preaches about not giving her children unearned advantages, and yet all of her money comes from her husband’s incredibly successful business. All the wealth she uses to live a life of luxury, and to fund her charity, comes from her husband’s earnings, not her own, so her refusal to help her children on the grounds that they didn’t earn that money rang incredibly false to me. The whole book is based around proving that Diana isn’t as selfish and unfeeling as she seems, just trying to teach her children to be self-sufficient, yet her children never learn this lesson, and turn out worse for her teaching it.
Not all novels have to have a “message,” but if the author is going to write their whole book around a certain idea, then that idea should be cohesive. Hepworth’s main idea is undercut by the hypocrisy of her central character, and as a result the whole novel feels false. From false expectations from the blurb and cover, to a feeling of disingenuousness that plagues the whole novel, The Mother-in-Law is an unsatisfying read.