Surprise heir

Ruth Ware’s novel The Death of Mrs. Westaway incorporates several things I love, and I was drawn to it from the first page. The protagonist, Hal (Harriet) Westaway, is such a vibrant character and her precarious existence is so appealing that it’s hard not to buy in.

Hal has been raised by a single mother in a small but unusual and fulfilling life; her mother was a tarot card reader in a booth on the pier in Brighton Beach and, partly through instruction and partly through absorbing the daily atmosphere of her mother’s tradecraft, Hal has acquired all the skills to follow after her when she is tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver right outside their front door.

Hal stays in their small but known and comforting bed-sit after her mother is gone, and takes up the mantle of tarot card reader, although she always hearkens to her mother’s voice in her ear that tells her not to believe the patter that makes her so successful with her clients. Hal enjoys the combination of the beauty of the tarot and the skillful use of psychological clues to direct the faith of the tourists and drunken hen parties in her “fortunes”; she doesn’t care for those few fanatics who return again and again trying to come at truths that Hal knows better than to promise them.

Hal has made one foolish decision in the aftermath of her mother’s death; between the halting start-up of her takeover of the tarot booth and the slow months of winter that don’t contain the huge number of customers present during the tourist season, Harriet got behind on her bills and resorted to visiting a moneylender. She is stunned to realize how quickly and disastrously the interest on this loan has compounded, and is in imminent danger from the loan shark’s enforcers if she doesn’t come up with the money soon.

Just at the crux of this fraught situation, Hal receives a letter from a law firm, telling her that her grandmother, Hester Westaway, has died and that her presence is required at the funeral and subsequent reading of the will. She knows just enough about her mother’s family to realize that someone has made a mistake; but there are sufficient similarities in her background that cause her to grasp at the idea that she can pull off a deception and perhaps come into some funds that will help her out of her desperate straits. She scrapes together the last of her funds, buys a ticket to Porthleven, and sets out to collect “her” inheritance.

Haven’t we all imagined at some point that a long-lost legacy will arrive in the mail or via a phone call? That we will be pulled back at the last second from the brink of ruin by the generosity of a remote relative who turns out to have doted on us as a precocious three-year-old and has been generous in their bequest? I loved the entire set-up for this story, and Hal’s tentative but determined foray into a strange house filled with family that may or may not be hers.

The tale owes a lot to both Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier: First of all, it takes place in Cornwall, scene of the bulk of du Maurier’s storytelling, and the creepy housekeeper definitely gives off an obsessive Mrs. Danvers vibe. The house itself is a gothic nightmare straight out of Christie, of cold, dark, dust-filled rooms reverberating with an unhappy past, and the Westaway family, though cordial on the surface, has obviously been greatly affected (and not in a good way) by their upbringing. It’s no coincidence that Hal feels the greatest affinity for the sole in-law in the bunch!

I have to say that the strong-willed, smart, and likeable character of Hal largely carried this book for me. I loved her back story, her personality, her profession, and her daring. The rest of the characters were, by comparison, made of cardboard, and some were outright cliché. They were okay as a backdrop for Hal, but it would have been nice if the only glimpses into their story had gone farther than a few incomplete and unsatisfying diary entries. None of them is overtly friendly, no one voluntarily supplies family history, and despite being surrounded by all these people, Hal has to solve her mystery through a not always compelling combination of research and subterfuge.

The thing is, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is not exactly a mystery, although there are mysterious elements to solve; it’s not entirely suspense, although it’s suspenseful; and the resolution is a bit telegraphed and not as exciting as it could have been. At several points in the story, it seems like the book doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be gothic horror, an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, or a psychological thriller. But if you focus on the story as being Hal’s alone, and simply let yourself enjoy the atmospheric vibes, it ends up being a satisfying read. The integration of the tarot into the story made it special for me, as I have always had a fascination with both the artwork and the infused meaning of those cards. This is the second Ruth Ware book I have read, and although the other one was better conceived and executed, I believe I prefer this one based simply on the appeal of character.

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