i’ve never read anything by sally hepworth before, although The Mother-in-Law has been recommended to me by several people. despite their impassioned “you need to read this!” beseechments, i never felt any urgency to pick it up. it seemed like it would probably be fine—middlebrow domestic suspense, maybe a decent twist, but there wasn’t anything about it that struck me as special.
but hell, i’ve misjudged a book before.
if this hadn’t shown up at my house in a box FAR too big to ignore, i probably wouldn’t have picked this one up, either, but since i can be easily bought off with a trowel, i dug in (chortle), and i wound up having a great time with it! the mystery elements were fairly predictable*, but i absolutely loved fern, and there was much more depth and nuance to her character than i’d expected, as well as more humor and some genuinely moving moments.
plotstuff: fern and rose are twins, but they are as different as two strangers who got off an elevator on the same floor, and hepworth reinforces their differences with how she shapes their alternating POVs: fern’s is a standard, although digressive, first-person narrative, while rose’s version of events is relayed through a series of journal entries.
fern has sensory-processing difficulties; she is hypersensitive to touch, and when faced with crowds of people, excessive or sudden noises or lights, she becomes overwhelmed into a sort of panic attack. she’s also neurodivergent, which can make the interacting-with-patrons part of her job as a librarian a little precarious, but also very funny. and for me—neurotypical but small-talk averse and impatient with imprecise queries, wincingly familiar. additional fern-and-karen samesies are that we are both excellent at the readers’ advisory parts of our jobs and both suspicious of/confounded by the computers-and-printers aspect.
not a spoiler, just a delightful but overlong passage you may or may not choose to read.View Spoiler » …it takes me several seconds to register the woman with pointy coral fingernails who has appeared at the desk, clutching a stack of books against her hip. I roll my ergonomic chair slightly to the right so I can still see the children…but distractingly, the woman moves with me, huffing and fidgeting and, finally, clearing her throat. Finally, she clicks her fingernails against the desk. “Excuse me.”
“Excuse me,” I repeat, rolling the statement around in my head. It feels unlikely that she is actually asking to be excused. After all, patrons are free to come and go as they please in the library, they don’t have to ask for the privilege. It’s possible, I suppose, that she’s asking to be excused for impoliteness, but as I didn’t hear her belch or fart, that also seems improbable. As such, I conclude she has employed the odd social custom of asking to be excused as a means of getting a person’s attention. I open my mouth to tell her that she has my attention, but people are so impatient nowadays and she cuts me off before I can speak.
“Do you work here?” she asks rudely.
Sometimes the people in this library can be surprisingly dense. For heaven’s sake, why would I be sitting behind the desk—wearing a name badge!—if I didn’t work here? That said, I acknowledge that I don’t fit the stereotypical mold of a librarian. For a start, at twenty-eight, I’m younger than the average librarian (forty-five, according to Librarian’s Digest) and I dress more fashionably and colorfully than the majority of my peers—I’m partial to soft, bright T-shirts, sparkly sneakers, and long skirts or overalls emblazoned with rainbows or unicorns. I wear my hair in two braids, which I loop into a bun above each ear (not a reference to Princess Leia, though I do wonder if she found the style as practical as I do for keeping long hair out of your face when you are a woman with things to do). And, yet, I am most definitely a librarian.
“Are you going to serve me, young lady?” the woman demands.
“Would you like me to serve you?” I ask patiently. I don’t point out that she could have saved herself a lot of time by simply asking to be served.
The woman’s eyes boggle. “Why do you think I’m standing here?”
“There are an infinite number of reasons,” I reply. “You are, as you may have noticed, directly adjacent to the water fountain, which is a high-traffic area for the library. You might be using the desk to shuffle documents on your way over to the photocopier. You may be admiring the Monet print on the wall behind me—something I do several times a day. You may have paused on your way to the door to tie your shoelace, or to double-check if that person over in the nonfiction section is your ex-boyfriend. You might, as I was before you came along, be enjoying Linda’s wonderful rendition of ‘The Three Little Pigs’—”
I have more examples, many many more, but I am cut off by Gayle, who approaches the desk hurriedly. “May I help you there?”
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although fern’s sensory sensitivities make her life challenging, she has developed routines and strategies to manage them and she has rose to help her through any tricky situations that may arise.
rose is an efficient, take-charge kind of woman, married with a successful career as an interior designer, but she always makes time for fern—they have dinner together several times a week, and she involves herself in every detail of fern’s life. rose established herself as fern’s protector when they were children, even before their mother overdosed, and she is the only person who knows fern’s darkest secret and the reason she needs to be protected from herself.
because of this secret, fern has always gratefully deferred to rose for guidance, and her side of the story is liberally sprinkled with rose’s advice and opinions, like so:
I try to avoid conversations about things other than books, although I’ll occasionally indulge Gayle in a conversation about her garden or her grandchildren, because Rose says it’s polite to do this with people who we like.
when rose’s desire for a baby is thwarted by her own biology, fern decides she owes it to her sister to conceive one for her. she meets a man ‘named’ wally who understands and shares some of her idiosyncrasies, and as their relationship develops into more than just a means to a procreational end, rose becomes
a bit territorial concerned with fern’s newfound independence from her, and wally has his own concerns about the sisters’ relationship.
fern may have difficulty with everyday social cues, but she nails the complexities of sororal dynamics:
Sisterly relationships are so strange in this way. The way I can be mad at Rose but still want to please her. Be terrified of her and also want to run to her. Hate her and love her, both at the same time. Maybe when it comes to sisters, boundaries are always a little bit blurry. Blurred boundaries, I think, are what sisters do best.
anywhooooo, this is a much longer review than i meant to write when i sat down, and very few people are bothering to read this far so i guess this is a private enough place to confess that i had myself one of those rare misty moments during the scene where fern is riding the bus to the clinic and sits in the pregnant-passenger seat. not a full-on cry, but since it’s so rare for me to even get that tight-throat pre-cry feeling when reading, i’m gonna fib a bit and put it on my “books that made me cry” shelf and hope that this is the beginning of a whole new me; a me who is able to be moved to tears (and, more importantly, to be SCARED) by books like everybody else.
an observation interesting to no one:
between this one, the murderbot series, and The Maid, i’ve read quite a little cluster of books lately whose main characters, for various reasons, struggle with human interactions: navigating social cues, wrestling with idiom or subtext, defaulting to literalism, developing coping mechanisms—putting so much effort into understanding and being understood. and either authors are getting better (more sensitive and thoughtful) about writing these kinds of characters, or i’m losing my curmudgeonly edge, because in the past, these character types came off annoyingly twee and inauthentic, and yet these recent few have not rubbed me the wrong way at all. bonus points for lessons in how to human better:
Asking questions is a tactic I use when small talk is required—it makes you appear interested while simultaneously putting all the effort of the conversation on the other party.
additional observation interesting to no one:
if you read this book or the spoiler passage i laboriously typed out, you will know that sartorially, fern is rita:
in conclusion, hepworth’s cover designer is phoning it in.
tl;dr—sisters. secrets. schemes
once upon a time
this enormous box showed up at my house:
long story short—i now own a trowel