the it girl by ruth ware - book review

Murder mystery in Oxford’s hallowed halls: The It Girl by Ruth Ware ★★★

I was very excited to receive an advanced copy of The It Girl. Ruth Ware is an auto-read author for me, and this one has dark academic vibes that I couldn’t wait to dive into.

It’s the late noughties and Hannah has just started at Oxford University. Bookish and shy, she initially feels out of place amidst her polished and wealthy classmates, but soon falls in love with Oxford and the allure of all that prestige and history. This is a place, she is sure, where she will be happy.

‘With the sun shining and puffs of white autumnal clouds in the sky, the view had an almost unreal beauty and Hannah had the strangest feeling that she had stepped inside he pages of one of the books in her suitcase – Brideshead Revisited, maybe. Gaudy Night. His Dark Materials. A storybook world.’

Her roommate, April, is dazzling: beautiful, rich, charming. She’s also smart – she’s earned her place at Oxford. And she’s vicious too, at times, with a dark sense of humour. But despite their differences, she and Hannah become firm and fast friends. And then – no spoiler, it’s in the blurb – April is murdered.

Ten years later, Hannah is married, pregnant, living in Edinburgh, working in a bookshop, and has tried to leave the trauma of her best friend’s murder in the past. Her evidence alone convicted the prime suspect – but a journalist has just come forward with intel that might lead to someone else – someone who was never investigated. The thought that Hannah might have convicted an innocent man – who has recently died in prison – torments her, and she sets about on a quest for the real truth of what happened that terrible night.

‘She is there too. Hannah. Not the Hannah of now, but the Hannah of then. The Hannah of before. Young, happy, full of hope and promise, and so unbearably, unutterably innocent of all the horror that life could hold.’

For the first half, I was hooked. We had Ruth Ware’s trademark evocative descriptions, the heady friendships of teenage girls, a sprinkling of 00s pop culture – all set within the beautiful, austere world of Oxford.

This thriller switches between past and present, although only for the first half of the book. And it was towards the second half that the story began to lose steam for me. The pace slows to a trickle and the suspense is totally lost as nothing much happens for quite a chunk of time. I also didn’t feel invested enough in the other characters to really interrogate who might have been the culprit. Had we spent more time with them in 2010 then I would have felt a greater sense of buy-in. The flashes we get of these characters do give a sense of who they are, but I was left wanting more.

The ending does pick up pace-wise as Hannah approaches the truth, and there are a few thrilling, cinematic moments, but by that point I wasn’t as interested in the idea as a whole and so I don’t feel that the narrative fully redeemed itself.

I wanted to love this, I really did! But it just didn’t end up being for me.

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. The It Girl will be published on July 12th 2022 by Gallery/Scout Press.

Book Review | The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Jules and Will are set to be married on a secluded island off the Irish coast. For Jules, a magazine editor-in-chief, it is all about ‘creating the right optics.’ The problem is, reaching the island involves crossing choppy seas, miles from the mainland – and it’s effectively a mass grave, thought to be the site of a Viking massacre. So, it doesn’t quite scream ‘romance’, but maybe the rugged desolation is part of the appeal?

The happy couple, however, have only known each other a few months, and Jules recently received a hand-delivered note advising her that Will isn’t who she thinks she is. Brushing these concerns aside, she is determined to have her picture-perfect big day – and feature it in the magazine afterwards, of course.

Aside from the bride and groom, there is an ensemble cast of characters in the mix – a mess in a less tightly-woven narrative, but a technique that works well here with Foley’s sufficiently distinct voices. A large part of the story focuses on a sadistic clique of boys from Will’s elite boarding school childhood. When the men find themselves back together to attend the wedding, there’s something dark glittering under their schoolboy manners, a regression back to heady teenage days of mischief and mayhem. Only their high jinks have rather sinister undertones.

‘Here there’s the added danger of the whole island. The wildness of this place gets under your skin. These guests will feel themselves far from the normal moral codes of society, safe from the prying eyes of others. These men are ex–public schoolboys. They’ve spent much of their lives being forced to follow a strict set of rules that probably didn’t end with their leaving school: choices around what university to attend, what job to do, what sort of house to live in. In my experience those who have the greatest respect for the rules also take the most enjoyment in breaking them.’

There’s a Riot Club (disturbing drama about a loosely-fictionalised group of boys at Oxford University) kind of nastiness about the dynamic of the group, an aggressive, toxic masculinity that is all the more shocking for these being family men in their mid-thirties, with children, wives, and sensible jobs. It gives you the sense that some pretty terrible stuff must have gone down during their school days – which, of course, it has. And the ripple effects of childhood ‘fun’, of pranks gone wrong, go far and wide.

‘There wasn’t time for anger at first. Only for the huge, existential shock of it: the bottom dropping out of everything.’

It is a little heavy-handed on the foreshadowing; characters announcing that various signs are ‘ominous’, from the cries of the native birds to the incoming storm. But the atmosphere of barely concealed doom is well crafted from the start, despite the island playing host to a supposedly joyful event. There are lots of backstories, hidden traumas to come to the surface – and it isn’t too difficult to figure out how everything ties into the plot at large – but it is still a careful juggle, and Foley pulls it off. An entertaining read for fans of the claustrophobic and drama-driven psychological thriller.

***.5

Book Review | One by One by Ruth Ware

When you think that tech start-ups have come up with everything, in comes Snoop. Snoop is the brainchild of Topher St Clair-Bridges and Eva van den Berg – two millennials just as monied as their names would suggest. The concept: tune into whatever anyone else in the world is listening to, hearing the same song at exactly the same time. In a few short years, Snoop has risen, on the surface, to stratospheric heights – and they now have to choose between being bought out and going public with an IPO. There are many millions on the line, and deep divisions form amongst the shareholders.

‘He is an arrogant public school boy who got lucky with a great idea and, more important, a mummy and daddy who were prepared to bankroll him.’

In an effort, perhaps, to put on a unified front, the company plan a getaway to an exclusive ski resort: there’s a whole host of characters on the guest list (a complicated introduction to the cast which necessitates some flipping back and forth for the first couple of chapters to remember who’s who). Ware pokes good-natured fun at the try-hard absurdity of millennial corporate culture, with company roles such as ‘Head of Beans’, ‘Chief Nerd’ and ‘Head of Cool’. It’s a pretty insufferable line-up, but unlikeable characters have never really put me off.

‘Her voice is high and sharp, her accent cut-glass, a few vowels away from full Princess Margaret.’

The chalet hosts, Erin and Danny, are in their early twenties and the most likeable of the bunch. It’s their job to give the guests an experience to remember. Only soon the trip becomes memorable – for all the wrong reasons. A fierce snowstorm hits, wiping out their electricity, phone reception and water supply. The group are now facing the daunting prospect of many hours – or days – before they can be rescued. In the fine tradition of Agatha Christie, members of the group start turning up dead. And in the extreme weather, pitch black darkness and encroaching cold, with a killer on the loose, the tension mounts. Understandably.

Despite being compelling and enjoyable, with a gripping and high-stakes denouement, Ware’s latest offering fell a little flat for me. There were too many characters introduced up front, and the reader can deduce pretty quickly who is there as a filler and who we are supposed to be invested in. This narrows down the suspect list rather early on, meaning that the revelations, when they come, are more of a ‘why’ than a ‘who’. Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently read Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party, but psychological thrillers with groups of people trapped in a house in extreme weather are starting to feel a little too derivative.

That said, I’ll keep coming back to Ruth Ware’s fiction – some of her best works to date include The Lying Game (2017) and The Turn of the Key (2019).

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***.5

With thanks to the publisher for the advanced copy. One by One will be published on November 12th 2020.

Book Review | The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

Ah, old friends. The sort with whom you can slip back into your old roles, share in-jokes, drink an irresponsible amount of alcohol and imagine yourself eighteen again. There’s something about those longstanding ties of friendship that keeps the characters at the heart of The Hunting Party reconnecting once a year, on New Year’s Eve, to recreate the bond they once had as young adults.

The group were at Oxford together and are now in their early thirties. There’s the attractive, intimidating, queen bee Miranda, married to the equally attractive hedge fund manager Julien. Samira, who was once the life and soul of the party, married to Giles – new parents who have brought their baby along. Nick, close friends with Katie, and Bo, an American recovering drug addict. Mark, one of the ‘lads’ with an aggressive streak, and keen-to-please Emma, his girlfriend – and the only one who isn’t part of the original clique. And then there’s Katie, an ambitious but introverted lawyer in the city, and Miranda’s best friend. If some of these sound like caricatures, I suppose it’s because they are – there isn’t enough time in this pacy read to render all of these characters three-dimensional, and some are very much secondary and deployed as plot devices than having any narrative autonomy in their own right.

Emma is newest to the group, having met Mark after university. Desperate to ingratiate herself with the inner circle, and particularly with Miranda, she books a retreat in the Scottish wilderness. It’s a hostile environment at the best of times; at this time of year, it’s ‘the sort of weather that people die in,’ one character remarks. It’s bleak and beautiful and desolate. It’s also almost impossible to reach in a snowstorm. What could possibly go wrong?

But group aren’t entirely alone up there. Also up at the house are Doug, an ex-serviceman, and Heather, both running away from tragedy. And it’s refreshing to hear a perspective from voices outside of the privileged, Oxbridge-educated, upper-middle class Londoners with their first-world problems (that can get a little grating.) It’s clear that those who choose to holiday in the house really have no idea what they’re potentially letting themselves in for.

‘These are people who live charmed existences. Life has helped them to feel untouchable. They’re so used to having that invisible safety net around them in their normal lives—connectivity, rapid emergency services, health and safety guidelines—that they assume they carry it around with them everywhere. They sign the waiver happily, because they don’t really think about it. They don’t believe in it. They do not expect the worst to happen to them. If they really stopped to consider it, to understand it, they probably wouldn’t stay here at all.’

And, of course, one of them soon ends up dead – and the culprit has to be another within the group. ‘The inner circle has imploded from within,’ Katie remarks, and the carefully-constructed façade will soon come crashing down.

There are – as the blurb will tell you – definite echoes of Agatha Christie and Ruth Ware, particularly with the clever rendering of expansive landscape and claustrophobic atmosphere. Although the large cast of characters was initially overwhelming, I felt that those we heard from in alternating points of view throughout had distinct enough voices so as not to hamper the pace or trajectory. This is the kind of compelling and compulsive psychological thriller I most enjoy – where the monsters come not from outside, but from within – from the people you love and trust the most.

****

Book Review | The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

No one does creepy, claustrophobic settings quite like Ruth Ware. She has a way of describing places that gets under your skin, her knack for drawing a picture of a place and then confining her characters there, prison-like, as the story unfolds.

The locale in question here is a renovated Victorian mansion in the Scottish Highlands, a strange and almost monstrous marriage of modernist and 19th century. Owned by architects Mr and Mrs Elincourt, the house is also home to four young girls.

‘Somehow the contrast between the mathematically severe modernist lines of the glass room and the fragile antique bowls was almost absurd, and I felt slightly off-balance. It was like the rest of the house in reverse—Victorian stuffiness punctuated by splashes of space-age modernity.’

It gets even eerier as we find out that the Elincourts have rigged Heatherbrae House up as a smart home, controlled by sinister-sounding app, Happy. The doors, lights, speakers – even the coffee machine – are manipulated through technology. It’s enough to make you want to immediately unplug the Alexa and unscrew the Wi-fi enabled lightbulbs in your own home.

When Rowan, a dissatisfied Nursery assistant in London, sees the post advertising for a nanny – complete with a generous compensation package – she leaps at the opportunity. Before long she’s packed her worldly goods into a few suitcases and is on a train bound for the Highlands. Yes, she’s the fourth nanny that year, and yes, the parents do seem particularly desperate for someone to start. But she shrugs that off – she’s not superstitious, and she’s worked with difficult children before. She’s got no idea what awaits her at Heatherbrae House.

‘People do go mad, you know, if you stop them from sleeping for long enough…’

Ware’s narrative starts with Rowan writing a letter, from prison, to a lawyer, desperate for help in exonerating her of the terrible crime of which she’s been accused – child murder. Giving us an unreliable narrator – hers is the only perspective we get throughout the novel – is a smart homage to Henry James’ original story, The Turn of the Screw – and as this story unfolds, we’re never quite sure if we can trust Rowan’s version of events. And despite it being a story told in reverse – we know that a child will die – the way it is plotted keeps the reader in the dark until the end.

Ware can’t always maintain the suspense or see stories out to their full conclusion, struggling to do justice to the accomplished narrative that’s come before. To an extent, that is the case here – at 80% through I questioned how it could all be wrapped up so quickly – but rather than the ambiguous ending leaving me unsatisfied, I think it was a fitting conclusion, though there were a few loose ends, and others too easily resolved.

What worked so well for me in this novel is the control over the tension. Building to an almost unbearable level – particularly as night falls on the isolated house – is only to be reined back in at the dawn of a new day. In the glare of sunlight, almost everything seems like it’ll be fine. This push-pull of the tension is very well accomplished, the stand out feature of this novel. In the warm light of day – with the arrival of the handsome gardener, a chuckling baby on Rowan’s hip, and sunlight pouring into the kitchen, we almost believe, too, that things are going to be okay. Spoiler alert: they’re not.

 

Book Review | The Death of Mrs Westaway by Ruth Ware

Twenty-one-year-old Hal tells fortunes on Brighton pier. She ekes out an existence – just about enough to continue to pay the rent on the small seaside flat that she shared with her mother, who died three years ago. With no family or friends to speak of, she finds herself in dark financial waters. That is, until, a miracle arrives – a letter detailing of a long-lost grandmother who has bequeathed her a sizeable fortune.

Hal knows it must be a mistake. But in the depths of her despair, she decides that perhaps – just perhaps – she can make this work. Telling people what they need to hear is how she makes a living. So, alone, she takes the train across to Cornwall, arriving at the old lady’s funeral on a bitingly cold day, ready to assume her role as granddaughter.

Upon meeting her ‘relatives,’ Hal gets sucked into her fabrication. But something else is simmering underneath the surface. She knows that the house – having fallen into disrepair – and the bitter housekeeper Mrs Warren – are hiding secrets.

‘The truth had been a horror that she could not bear to face while she was alive. Instead her grandmother had waited until she herself was beyond pain – and unleashed this catastrophe on the living.’

It takes until the very final few chapters for things to come together – but unfortunately, things don’t really come together – at least not in a coherent or totally believable way. The plot meanders along and I found myself detached from the characters, getting mixed up between the brothers and lost in the threads of motivations.

‘And I thought – This is it. This is what I have been waiting all my life to feel, this is what those girls at school used to talk about, this is what the songs mean, and the poems were written for. This is it. This is it.

But the sun has gone now, and it’s winter, and I feel very cold. And I am no longer sure if I was right.’

Ruth Ware is a talented writer and weaves a good story, but The Death of Mrs Westaway fell short on this occasion – too much of a slow-burn, and more of a drama than psychological thriller. For an example of Ware’s fantastic storytelling, I would recommend instead The Lying Game

Book Review | The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

We’re always bound to the past in one way or another. No matter how much time has passed, there are certain defining moments in our life – ten, twenty, fifty years on, it is these moments we keep coming back to. For best friends Kate, Thea, Fatima and Isa, who meet when boarding together at Salten, the events of one summer will alter their lives forever.

The girls are drawn together from their very first day, quickly isolating themselves from the other girls at the school and becoming drawn into the ‘lying game’. Play to win points – and the higher the stakes, the greater the respect gained. The game binds them together, and they spend all their time in each other’s company over at the Mill, where Kate lives with her Dad – the enigmatic art teacher Ambrose, and her French step-brother Luc.

It is within their unbreakable friendship that they find solace, escape from the external pressures of the world. Until something happens that changes their lives forever; that abruptly tears them apart. Seventeen years will pass before they are brought back together again, back to Salten, back to where it all began. They all get a text from Kate: I need you. So they come running.

‘It is late. We have dragged ourselves from the water, laughing and cursing, scraping our shins on the splintered rotten wood, and we have towelled our hair and dried our goose-bumped skin. Fatima has changed out of her wet clothes, shaking her head at her own stupidity, and now we are lying sleepily on Kate’s threadbare sofa in our pyjamas and dressing gowns, a tangle of weary limbs and soft worn throws, gossiping, reminiscing, telling the old stories: Do you remember…?’

Ruth Ware is a master at creating atmosphere, all so often in claustrophobic, unsettling spaces that become as integral to the book as the characters themselves. In a Dark, Dark Wood, her first novel, takes place almost entirely inside a house made of glass, and The Woman in Cabin 10 is confined to the enclaves of a cruise ship. The Lying Game is no different in this regard – the claustrophobic coastal town where Kate lives, in a dilapidated, towering home set against the backdrop of a rising and falling tide, creates an ominous tone, and the little village is the place where nothing changes, where nothing you said or did is ever forgotten.

‘But I don’t. I don’t try to justify what I’m doing. I just let go of the present, let the current tug it from my fingers, and I let myself sink down, down into the past, like a body falling into deep water, and I feel myself drowning, the waters closing over my head as I sink, and I don’t even care.’

I have found before that Ware’s prior novels, as enjoyable as they are, tend to run out of steam towards the end, that she isn’t quite able to sustain the tension and keep the reader on their toes for as long as she should. However, I feel that in The Lying Game she retains good control over the pace and plot – and that this her strongest work to date; a haunting exploration of the bonds of female friendship, the heady years of youth, and the inescapable nature of the past.

 

 

Book Review | The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Cruise ships have a certain eeriness about them. Stuck out in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles from land, often in enclosed, windowless cabins, the ceaseless rhythm and roar of the water beneath you. But for journalist Lo Blacklock, a trip aboard the Auroras maiden voyage is too good an opportunity to pass up, with the potential that it could lead to the career break she’s been waiting for.

The ship she boards is an exclusive, luxury vessel commissioned by Lord Bullmer, a wealthy businessman. Lo hopes to use the cruise around the Norwegian fjords as a chance to network with the clientele on board and score points back home with her boss. But all thoughts of career advancement go out the window when she is awoken in the middle of the night. She’s sure that she’s heard a splash coming from the deck of the cabin next door – the kind of splash that could only be made by a body going overboard.

The problem is, we have here our classic unreliable narrator. A recent break-in at her London flat has left her anxiety-ridden and she is using alcohol to self-medicate. This doesn’t go unnoticed by the ship’s crew and passengers, and she is hard-pressed to find anyone who will believe her story. Growing increasingly desperate and isolated, she tries desperately to get help. But with evidence rapidly disappearing, time is running out and things start to take a very dark turn indeed.

“On deck, the wind hit me in the face like a punch, and I almost stumbled to the rail, hanging over it, feeling the pitch of the boat. The dark gray waves stretched out like a desert – mile upon mile, stretching out to the horizon, no sign of land of any kind, nor even a ship …”

This is a claustrophobic novel, with tightly-wound prose and a steady build-up of menace. Ruth Ware evokes the intensity of being aboard a ship with no way out and no-one to turn to. It was billed as a novel in the vein of Agatha Christie, and you can definitely see the similarities; small crop of characters, singular location, mounting apprehension.

The first two thirds of this book were chilling; I had no idea where the narrative was headed. Rather than everyone being a suspect, I felt that no-one was a suspect – a clever technique that held my interest as our protagonist frantically tried to uncover the truth. Unfortunately, I felt the final third of the book was a let down; too much slid into place, it all became a bit fantastical and took away from the creeping of suspense I had felt when I began reading. That said, it was still a cut above most of the psychological thrillers that are published. Rather than relying on shock tactics of violence and torture, Ware instead delves into the psychological aspects of confinement, fear, and ever-growing unease, in a place where there’s nowhere to run.