The Death of Mrs. Westaway is the third of Ruth Ware’s novels that I’ve had the pleasure of reading and, at this time, it is my favorite. The novel is a modern mystery with a Gothic, even Dickensian atmosphere. Hal, or Harriet, the narrator, is an orphaned waif, barely subsisting off the business her mother had started, that of a Tarot Reader. Worse, she owes a loan shark money, too much to ever pay back. Hal then experiences what most orphan fantasies consist of: a letter stating that she is (essentially) the long-lost heir to an inheritance. Hal believes this to be a case of mistaken identity, but she’s desperate. She doesn’t ask for much, only to survive. So she goes off on her adventure, to play the part of a missing granddaughter in the hope that, if she plays it well enough, she’ll be able to pay off the loan shark and live a comfortable if lonely life.
As with her previous novels, Ware gives us an unreliable but likeable narrator. All we know is what Hal knows, although most of us are old enough to know better where Hal isn’t. She’s tough but naive. She’s very good at acting, but still flubs her lines. At the first, the reader wants to protect her and even supports her attempt at fraud if only to save her own life. Better still would it be that Hal really is the missing granddaughter.
Nothing is ever that simple. Hal finds herself in a setting worthy of Daphne Du Maurier. An old, run-down mansion; an attic room with locks on the outside of the door; a menacing housekeeper; and an eclectic group of uncles that Hal might or might not be able to trust. Ware skillfully twists the many threads of family secrets, and there are quite a few. Hal’s own connection to the family is the deepest secret of all. Again, the reader only knows what Hal knows, and by the time Hal has finally pieced everything together, it is nearly too late.
The ending is satisfying and somewhat expected because it was hoped for.
Mystery and family secrets aside, one of the themes of The Death of Mrs. Westaway that I found most intriguing was that of family. Hal’s close relationship with her mother, her shaky relationship with the men who might or might not be her uncles made me think about what ties families together. Hal has had no connection with this family ever, as far as she knows. She is a stranger to them; yet, the mere idea that she might be the daughter of their missing sister is enough for them to embrace her, to some degree anyway. Without that blood connection, she is nothing to them. Yet, Hal is the same person, whether related to them or not. The rather quaint saying–“Blood is thicker than water”–is tested over and over in The Death of Mrs. Westaway. For me, the novel reveals just how tenuous family ties can be.
When it comes to family, I am most often observer, least often participant. I have three siblings, 3, 11, and 13 years older than me. I am close with my middle sister, but not the other two sibs. I keep in touch with them (okay, one of them), but I don’t share my hopes and dreams, my fears and frustrations. The less said, the better.
Contrast this with one set of cousins, a gaggle of sisters and brothers relatively close in age and, despite being thousand of miles apart from each other, have a closeness that would be the envy of best friends.
Into another set of cousins, a stranger appeared. A secret son, the oldest of his half-siblings but unknown until after their mother’s death. In head-spinning quickness, he was welcomed into the family, embraced even by those relatives he might never meet.
Another family, unrelated to me, a small unit, where a rift between brother and sister has led to permanent estrangement, where one sibling washed her hands of the other and, as far as I know, has never looked back. The brother shrugs at the memory and moves on.
I’ve often thought that what brought families together and kept them together was shared experience. At least, that gives them an advantage. I’ve physically drifted away from most of my extended family, to the point where our shared experiences begin and end with my adolescence. Not my most favorite time of life, not a time that I want to revisit when I visit them.
This meditation on family is a result of having read The Death of Mrs. Westaway. I’ve been turning it over in my head for a long time. I envied Hal. Of course, she is about forty years younger than me, not overly burdened with a past she’d just as soon chuck into a river. Perhaps it’s that sense of her being a stranger, unknown to her presumed uncles, herself a blank slate that she writes her own story on. She is, as far as we know, committing fraud and while that is a frightening experience for her, I could also imagine it being a freeing experience as well. To rewrite oneself, one’s past, one’s family.
I’m not saying I want to rewrite my family; only that I often imagine what families are like outside of what I know. Even as a kid, I would wonder what it was like to be that popular girl in my class, or the one who was taunted because her family was poor. Most often, how would I be different if I had grown up in a different family. Would I be different? People have always been objects of curiosity for me. That’s why I write and that’s why I read. For me, families are the stuff of stories.
I’m curious: How does family figure in your writing? Or do they?