The Mother-in-Law: A Novel
“At times The Mother-In-Law reads more like a character study of two very different women than a mystery, yet every page pulsates with Sally Hepworth’s skill in getting inside the minds and hearts of her two leading female characters.”
Families often fight. They can be volatile, sometimes irrational and, in many cases, allow resentments to build that prove devastating for all. It is in the silence that follows where the impervious and irreparable damage occurs. In Sally Hepworth’s The Mother-In-Law she expertly dissects with a surgeon’s precision the presumably stone-cold heart of its matriarch, Diana. Soon after her death it turns from an apparent suicide to murder. Every member of her family from her son and daughter to their respective spouses have a motive.
The narrative is told almost entirely in two alternating points of view, Diana’s and her daughter-in-law Lucy’s. Her son Oliver or Ollie’s wife is a young mother of three whose down-to-earth persona perplexes the ever-polished and emotionally reserved Diana. The story starts in present time shortly after Diana’s death while reflecting on the past and the years that lead up to it. Lucy is introduced to Diana ten years before when Ollie has asked Lucy to marry him.
Lucy, who has lost her own mother at a young age, hopes that she will have a storybook relationship with her soon-to-be-mother-in-law and shows up at Ollie’s parents’ home with the best intentions. However, that possibility is quickly snuffed out upon their first meeting when Diana quite cruelly cuts off Lucy as she begins to talk about her own deceased mother. Dinner, as it turns out, must be served.
The story takes place in Australia, and Diana, for her part, proves more generous with her time and money to the pregnant refugee women she helps with her charity than she apparently does with her own two children. There is a reason for this, a reason that has to do with her own first pregnancy and how she was so coldly treated by her parents as an unwed mother. Hepworth goes straight to the quick of the permanent injury inflicted on Diana in these passages, a raw hurt within that never heals no matter how many young pregnant women she rescues throughout her lifetime.
All these years later, Diana and her husband Tom now have money. They earned it and are sitting on an impressive fortune; however, while Tom is alive and gives his daughter and son a helpful hand behind his wife’s back, Diana outright refuses to give her children financial handouts, “I worked hard for everything I ever cared about. And nothing I ever cared about cost a single cent.” Although the family is wealthy, she insists the children live within modest means. It’s a lesson she feels they must learn.
As an outsider brought into the family, Lucy is actually the only one of its members who comes to better understand Diana and, at times, appreciates her strength as well as her brief glimpses of vulnerability. After Diana reveals that Tom is dying from a degenerative disease Lucy laments, “It makes me feel sad and also strangely privileged that she let her guard down with me, even just for a few seconds.”
As the narrative progresses, the reasons why Diana is murdered become clear. While Diana’s rationale for doing what she does may seem well-meaning to her, she makes instant enemies with her unwavering decisions that she does very little to fully explain.
At times The Mother-In-Law reads more like a character study of two very different women than a mystery, yet every page pulsates with Sally Hepworth’s skill in getting inside the minds and hearts of her two leading female characters. This alone provides enough pull for any reader to breeze right through the pages to the end, making this an ideal summer read.