As I mentioned in my review of The Winters, there are certain limits of taking inspiration from another book (especially one that I love) that affect my enjoyment of reading a novel. I read The Death of Mrs Westaway before The Winters, and both use aspects of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and adapt them for a new story. Though there were a couple of things I didn’t like, I found The Death of Mrs Westaway to have a greater balance between using and adapting aspects of du Maurier’s novel, and adding unique elements. It’s has a very good story, with a central mystery that twists and turns a fair few times, so I very much enjoyed reading this book.
Hal has been living alone since her mother died three years ago, struggling to pay the bills while keeping their tarot reading business afloat. Then one day, as though by a twist of fate, a letter arrives to tell her that she is the recipient of a substantial inheritance.
She soon realises there has been a mistake, that this letter was meant for someone else, but the temptation to use her skills in reading people through tarot to claim the money remains.
She relents to that temptation, finding herself among the mourners in the grand Cornish estate. Once she is introduced to the family, it dawns on Hal that something is not right about the situation, or the inheritance at the centre of it.
I think my favourite aspect of this book was the way Ruth Ware evoked the atmosphere of various locations, from a pier in Brighton to a rural Cornish stately home. Ware managed to layer everything with a sense of greyness and dampness that, rather than dulling the overall tone, made it more chilling. Everything felt heightened and unpredictable, complementing the central mystery magnificently.
This atmosphere also compounded how isolated Hal often feels. This isolation, as the years have passed and in particular since her mother’s death, has resulted in a steely determination, a relentless independence: the only person Hal has to rely on is herself.
“The person she was now was not the girl she would have been. The girl who had given her pocket money to the homeless, frittered away pennies on the pier, whiled away Sundays eating popcorn in front of bad films – she was gone. In her place was someone hardened, someone who had had to become hardened in order to survive.”
Yet she, and the reader alongside her, is aware of how dangerous this can be. Without anyone to truly confide in, Hal has no one to stop her making rash decisions, or help her when there’s no right decision to take. Her only guide is often the memory of her mother, and she’s aware of how futile that may often be. Hal’s character was incredibly compelling – frustrating and endearing in equal measure. Her longing for any kind of stability, be it financial or emotional, added so much to the novel, and to the stakes surrounding the inheritance she is invited to claim.
The Westaways are certainly a unique group. Harding and wife Mitzi seem to be a loving if extravagant pair; Abel’s easy demeanour hiding a turmoil beneath; Ezra’s cool disdain causing rifts between himself and his brothers. Viewing them through Hal’s eyes, the reader is treated to a gradual unravelling of the family’s secrets that was done well. The biggest secret took me very much by surprise: Ware was excellent for placing hints here and there so that one can think back and realise what it all meant.
Another strong story element was the confrontation of fate and choice. As a tarot reader, Hal is torn: she knows how to use them for customers, how read their body language and match the cards they pick to what she finds. She knows what the cards represent, but also that they cannot ‘predict’ any future; all that can be offered is a possible road to take, a choice. Yet she often searches for answers in the cards herself, especially when she feels her mother’s absence most acutely. I found this theme fascinating as it permeated through the story, questioning whether some things are inevitable, or if there is always a chance to make other choices.
“She would shape her own life. She would change her own fortune. She would make her own luck.”
Though suspense and intrigue was built up really well, there were a few scenes where I felt that the dialogue deflated it. It was exposition that didn’t add much either to the progression or clarity of the story, and it didn’t help that said dialogue could veer into cliché. Some things just don’t need to be said (or written), so that was a little niggle I came across in my reading.
I mentioned in my introduction that aspects of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca were incorporated into this book. For the most part, I enjoyed the parallels – it helped that the main plot wasn’t linked to du Maurier’s novel, so it felt a lot subtler. The Westaway’s house felt even more frozen in time, cold, empty, and crumbling, and the secrets unfolding were both more horrifying and wide-reaching. Other forms of ‘inspiration’ felt too overt and again, unnecessary to the piece – scenes relating to this may have been better spent touching on other character histories that were intriguing.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed reading The Death of Mrs Westaway. I felt swept up in its chilling atmosphere, and in the mystery that arrives at Hal’s door. The characters (dead and alive) are compelling, and the writing makes the novel a real page-turner. This is another great read for the autumnal season.
Thanks for reading my review! Let me know what you think in the comments below!
*The Death of Mrs Westaway, written by Ruth Ware, was published by Harvill Secker, imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2018