BOOK REVIEW: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

In Ruth Ware’s fourth female-driven thriller, she invites readers to take part in the most bizarre family reunion imaginable.

Hal Westaway, an orphaned fortune teller from Brighton, receives a letter in the mail informing her she is eligible to claim a significant sum of money from her dead grandmother’s will. The notice comes with perfect timing: Hal owes money to a rather unsavory group of people and is desperate to pay off her debts and get on with her life. The only problem is that the Mrs. Westaway mentioned in the notice is not, in fact, her grandmother.

Despite the obvious moral and practical obstacles in the way, Hal heads to the estate of her would-be grandmother determined to con the family into giving her money. What unfolds is a weekend of murder, mystery, and uncomfortable family tension.

I’ve enjoyed Ruth Ware’s previous books. I absolutely loved In A Dark, Dark Wood (the book that launched her to literary stardom), and I’ve always liked reading works by female authors who aren’t afraid to tackle dark subject matter. Ware has a knack for building tension and anticipation through foreshadowing, and she does this quite effectively in The Death of Mrs. Westaway. Her writing is sound, clear and easy to follow, but the novel lacks a few of the qualities that made Dark Wood so enthralling.

For one, The Death of Mrs. Westaway drags on. It’s long, it’s dense, and there are simply too many threads to follow – some of which are left loose-ended. Several portions of the story – in particular the two in which Hal departs the family estate only to return again several chapters later – feel unnecessary and only serve to prolong the actual excitement of the novel.  

The story also requires the reader to suspend disbelief a little too much. It’s conceivable enough that a young woman would accidentally receive a notice meant for someone else, but it seems almost completely unbelievable to me that said woman would decide – without any further information – to insert herself into a gathering of grieving family members.

Obviously fiction doesn’t have to be fact-driven or even based in reality at all, but in a novel like The Death of Mrs. Westaway, which takes place in real cities and towns and follows quite ordinary individuals living ordinary lives, it’s hard to imagine the characters going to such unrealistic extremes.

If you’ve been a fan of Ware’s past work, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is worth reading. Despite the shortcomings, the book is well written and has ample atmosphere. The settings – Brighton’s famous boardwalk and a mysterious country estate – are lovely and nicely described. Hal’s work as a Tarot card reader and her ability to asses a person at first glance gives her a unique perspective on the people around her, and her descriptions of her supposed “family” are witty, intelligent, and interesting.

(You can read my review of Ware’s book The Lying Game here.)