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Book Review: The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth

April 12, 2022 4 comments

Summary:
Tully and Rachel Aston look upon their father’s fiancée, Heather, as nothing but an interloper. Heather is younger than both of them. Clearly, she’s after their heart surgeon father’s money. They understand why he might want to date, given that their mother is in a care home due to rapidly advancing early onset Alzheimer’s, but it feels disrespectful that he’s going to divorce her to marry another. Meanwhile, they’re each struggling with a secret. Plus, Heather has secrets of her own. Will getting to the truth unleash the most dangerous impulses in all of them?

Review:
I have a soft spot for Australian psychological thrillers. This is the fourth Sally Hepworth one I’ve read. It ranks near but not quite at the top among her works for me. (My favorite being The Mother-in-Law). It’s pretty obvious early on that Heather is not the big bad, so then the main mystery remains – who is? And of course, what is Rachel’s secret? And when will everyone find out Tully’s secret?

We find out almost immediately that Tully struggles with kleptomania and that Rachel used to date but suddenly abruptly stopped. So the main issues surrounding the two sisters is when will others find out about Tully’s uncontrollable shoplifting and what exactly made Rachel stop dating. I thought the former was handled better than the latter. Tully seeks out therapy and her problems don’t disappear overnight. Rachel meets a nice guy and with him is able to overcome her trauma. That frustrated me a bit. Especially since Rachel is set up as being so strong. One can be strong and also find help in therapy. Or even in a support group structure. It shouldn’t all be on the significant other to help someone heal. So it was a little bit hit and miss for me with the two sisters.

I thought the main mystery of what was actually going on in the weird triangle of the dad, Heather, and the mom was quite well done. I especially appreciated the handling of Alzheimer’s. I do think this book falls prey to the old idea of alcoholism – that one can only have an alcohol problem if one is at rock bottom. Beating a spouse or getting delirium tremens (the shakes) when going too long without it. There are definitely characters in this book who display problems with alcohol, but the narration brushes off the idea that they might have a problem.

The structure starts with a bang – at the wedding, someone is injured, and we don’t know who. The wedding is put on hold, the police are called. We then flash back to Heather meeting the daughters and build back up to the wedding. This is a multiple point of view book. Rachel, Tully, Heather, even the mother get a turn narrating.

This book confronts the problem looming for a lot of new contemporary fiction – do we or do we not acknowledge the pandemic? This strikes a gentle balance of what to do. The characters talk about not shaking hands anymore, one character had a big career setback due to lockdowns, and another character’s marriage is a bit impacted by the work-from-home situation. No major details are mentioned (for example, masks are never discussed, no deaths from the pandemic are mentioned). I envisioned it as happening in 2021 or early 2022. Post lockdowns but not far flung future. I thought it worked fairly well.

Overall, this was a fun read with a different enough plot to keep me engaged. It was a little bit of a mixed bag, which is what kept me from loving it. I put content warnings in for this book over on Storygraph if you’re interested in those. I did wish I’d had them myself.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 352 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: The Good Sister by Sally Hepworth

Cover of the book "The Good Sister."

Summary:
Fern and Rose are fraternal twins. Rose is smart, driven, and Fern’s protector. Fern doesn’t understand the world and so Rose has protected her, ever since they were small. For example, Fern didn’t understand that they spent every day in the library one year when they were little because they were homeless. Just one example of the many ways their mother failed them. In fact, Fern even became a librarian, she remembered that year so fondly. It’s a good thing she has Rose. When Rose struggles with infertility with her husband, Fern hatches a plan to repay Rose for being such a good sister. She’ll get pregnant and give the baby to her. But of course, not everything goes according to plan.

Review:
Sally Hepworth writes psychological thrillers starring casts of women in Australia. Sometimes they feature larger casts of women and other times it’s a couple of women pitted against each other. This is mostly the latter category.

I had my suspicions about the mystery early but thought that must not be it because it was so simplistic. I am sorry to report – it was indeed it. Some psychological thrillers lean a bit too heavily on the trope of – one person in this world is “crazy!” and did unpredictable “crazy!” things and there is no helping them because they are just so “crazy!” so let’s lock them up. I’m not a big fan of this trope for two reasons: 1) people are more complex than that 2) it’s a bit of a cheat to the reader because then things can happen that are unpredictable and make no sense. However, I get it that it’s a trope in psychological thrillers and am usually willing to give it a bit of a pass. In this case, however, the reader is told this character probably has Narcissistic Personality Disorder or Borderline Personality Disorder. There’s a character who has told their therapist all about them, and that therapist hypothesizes that this character might have one of these two illnesses. Everyone else in the book just accepts this and moves on. I am not saying people with these personality disorders never do bad things or hurt others, but the same can be said of all types of people. Plus, the character’s actions aren’t made out to be about them as a person but rather a symptom of their illness. It reminds me of how Schizophrenia used to be treated in literature. This character doesn’t even get the decency of having the state investigate their mental health or a clear diagnosis. It both unnecessarily maligns two of the most maligned types of mental illnesses and creates an entirely two-dimensional character.

Then there’s the representation of Autism. From the beginning, it’s clear that Fern is Autistic (I am not using person-first language as many in the Autistic community prefer claiming the word as a part of who they are, rather than as an illness), but she is depicted in such a stereotypical way that it hurt to read. For example, constantly bringing up how she doesn’t like to look people in the eyes and belaboring the point at random times when she might make eye contact. Her sensory episodes felt as if they were written by someone outside of her body rather than by her – problematic since it was written in the first person. The whole first half of the book has a lot of anti-Autistic sentiment, including wondering whether or not Fern could actually be capable of raising a baby. Are these reversed at the end of the book? Somewhat. But to me the damage is done by wondering about it in the first half.

So why am I still giving this book three stars? I have to admit that it was a page turner – I had to know what happened to Fern and the baby growing inside her. I couldn’t stop reading until I knew. The energy of must-find-out that is needed in a thriller was there, even if I was disappointed by the characterization, representation, and ultimately found the solution to be a bit flat.

3 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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