In “The Mother-in-Law,” Sally Hepworth explores what it means to be part of a family. She weaves a careful tale of murder, lies, and hatred that takes place in modern day Australia. Though the plot is not wildly original or particularly gripping, “The Mother-in-Law” possesses a surprisingly engaging cast of characters that helps craft a somewhat compelling book out of a feeble, simplistic mystery.
From the start, the plot zeroes in on the fabulously wealthy Goodwin family: the stoic matriarch Diana, her kind and generous husband Tom, their good-humored adult son Ollie, and their quiet businesswoman daughter Nettie. Additions to the family include Patrick, Nettie’s lazy and rather callous spouse, and the motherly Lucy — the primary narrator. This is a role she shares with Diana, who narrates events of the past. Lucy’s narration mainly takes place in the present day, but flashes back to events that occurred since her engagement. Diana’s narration often compliments Lucy’s, sometimes retelling events from her perspective. This second perspective turns out to be important, since Diana’s actions are so influenced by her past and the narration explains her often perplexing behavior.
For the most part, the plot focuses on the murder of the matriarch and its aftermath. Though Diana is initially thought to have committed suicide by poison, the police suspect foul play when they discover that no poison is found in her system – rather, they find that she was suffocated to death. Lucy then tries to understand what happened that day to the woman with whom she has always had an antagonistic and turbulent relationship.
The chapters in the past focus on each narrator’s history as well as their developing relationships with each other. Diana, who runs a charity helping pregnant refugee women in Australia, loses patience with her middle-class daughter quite easily. She finds Lucy entitled, too eager to place, even a little helpless. In spite of her wealth, Diana had a rather rough adulthood: Even though Diana grew up quite happily in a Catholic middle-class household, an unexpected pregnancy in her late teens changed everything.
Of course, there are times where her coldness towards Lucy is rather ridiculous — you can’t simply hate someone because they have had an easier life than your own. While sometimes Lucy feels obnoxiously privileged, to constantly disparage or begrudge her for not being an Afghan refugee feels rather unfair — a frequent comparison and criticism that Diana makes. Still, Diana’s dislike ends up making her narration quite humorous: “The engagement came faster than I expected — within the year. Ollie announced it at dinner one night, wearing the same proud smile he’d worn at two years old when he’d carried in a dead bird from the garden.” Descriptions like these are the perfect combination of biting and hilarious, and they capture her dynamic personality.
Though the reader feels some sympathy for Lucy, it’s often hard to connect with her. This makes reading this book rather difficult to become immersed in as it is primarily concerned with Lucy’s psychology and struggles. Lucy, whose own mother died when she was quite young, searches for a mother-figure in Diana, only to find criticism and dismissal. It can be challenging to understand Lucy’s empathic hatred for her mother-in-law at times. Sure, Diana is cold and judgmental, but this attitude is never specifically directed at Lucy. As many of the other character’s insinuate, Diana is simply a cold woman, one who even treats her children in this way.
Some of Diana’s more aggressive or direct remarks against Lucy don’t match up to the hatred that Lucy feels. Diana coming empty handed to her daughter-in-law’s delivery room doesn’t deserve Lucy’s subsequent rush of loathing. The book seems to be self aware about its absurdity, because it introduces more offensive acts worthy of disdain such as when Diana turns off a baby monitor during dinner against Lucy’s wishes or when Diana takes her infant grandchildren swimming despite their mother’s request not to. Because so many of these actions call into question Lucy’s role as a mother, it is easier to understand where Lucy’s immense frustration and anger come from. The earlier examples of Diana’s mistreatment, however, make Lucy out to be unreasonable. This is disappointing considering how well the narrations usually captures Lucy’s emotions and thoughts.
Generally speaking, Hepworth is devoted to her female characters. As Diana remarks in her narration, “In the back of my thoughts it occurs to me that Ollie is the fruit of my womb, yet at some point he’s become almost insignificant. He and Tom and Patrick are the cogs and spokes, but Lucy and Nettie and I we are the wheels.” The attention to the women in the novel feels quite important since battle between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law is a well-loved trope: This story adds more complexity and dynamism to this oft-explored conflict.
Nettie is another character whose motivations are explored extensively, which is a rather tricky but successfully-addressed conundrum considering that she is an immensely private person. Her character arc exemplifies the work’s ability to sustain the mystery, while also divulging just the right amount of information across the chapters. It is this technique in particular which keeps up Hepworth’s story since it does not have any of the drive of a traditional whodunnit.
Overall, “The Mother-in-Law” doesn’t bring anything new to the table. So, while it might not make the top of any beach reads list, there is something rather unrelenting about its characters and their strange but oddly satisfying dynamics, which ultimately makes it worth the read. With their quick fire exchanges, the protagonists will certainly demand the reader’s attention.
—Staff writer Aline G. Damas can be reached at email@example.com.