“The Mother-in-Law” by Sally Hepworth is a story that intrigues while also leaving the reader to reconsider what is important in life. The story is told from two points of view — Diana, married with two adult children, and Lucy, married to Ollie, Diana’s oldest son. At the very start of the story, Lucy and her family learn about Diana’s death.
Hepworth does an amazing job of not giving the reader much information at the start of the book in terms of Lucy’s relationship with Diana or what, in fact, the family dynamics are. Instead, through different first person narratives, Lucy and Diana share their stories both in the present and in the past. And Hepworth labels the stories clearly as “The present . . .” or “The past . . .”
Diana’s life seems charmed to Lucy. Diana and Tom, Ollie’s father, live in a beautiful mansion and own vacation homes. They have plenty of wealth, but Diana is determined to have her children make their own way without getting help from their parents. Lucy admires that even as she becomes a stay-at-home mom with her three children while her husband works diligently at a business and ends up with little to show for it.
Ollie’s sister, Nettie, is close to the family, and she dotes on Lucy’s children. Her husband, Patrick, only seems to dote on Tom’s cigars and his fine liquors. Tom is the quintessential grandfather and dotes on his children and grandchildren, while Diana seems more detached, more involved with the pregnant refugee women she helps than with her own family.
But as the story progresses, the reader comes to understand both Lucy and Diana and to realize why each woman behaves the way she does. And the reader comes to respect both of them. This is very much a woman’s book because it’s the women who are the strong characters in the story. It’s the women who support the men, and it’s the women who are at the center of the action.
At first, Diana’s death is considered a suicide, but when no poison is found in her body, the police begin to investigate it as a homicide. And as Ollie, Nettie, Patrick, and Lucy are interviewed and investigated, it turns out that more than one of them might have had a reason to kill Diana.
Hepworth’s gradual release of information about Diana and Lucy allows the reader to slowly learn about the two women and their history. Slowly, the reader grows to like the women and understand how their relationship develops and matures. And readers also come to realize that both women make many mistakes in their relationship with each other — mistakes that we might make with those around us. One of the appealing things about the story is that all the characters are flawed, except perhaps for Tom, whose only flaw is his generosity and his desire to make life as wonderful as possible for his children. But Tom and Diana are desperately in love, and he respects her wishes regarding giving their children money — at least while she is looking.
The reader comes to understand Diana better through her narrative about her past. While her parents were comfortable, she struggled as a young woman, and she believes that her struggles made her stronger. In fact, that’s why she believes so strongly that her children need to stand on their own two feet, or they will never reach their full potential.
The book is sad, but the ending, while not cheerful, is wonderfully optimistic. Lucy has learned from her mother-in-law about what is truly important in life. Ollie has always known what is important — his family. And together, Lucy and Ollie know that with their family, nothing is impossible.
Hepworth’s writing is impeccable. Her use of changing time periods and alternating voices could be confusing, but with her capable treatment, it all works beautifully. The mystery of who killed Diana isn’t the center of the story; the complex relationships between the family members are more significant. Lucy and Diana’s relationship in particular evolves and develops into something lovely. This is a book that would be a great choice for a book club because of the discussion that it would engender.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by St. Martin’s Press, the publisher, for review purposes.