Wednesday, September 9, 2015

In a Dark Dark Wood

By Ruth Ware
Simon and Schuster     2015
320 pages     Mystery

In A Dark, Dark Wood with its ominous cover appeared on several “Best of Summer” reading lists early in June, but I decided to wait to read it until we went on our Alaskan cruise in August. So here I am, a few days after finishing it, and I can’t remember the murderer’s motive. That probably tells you a lot about the book right there. Although those people who loved the book would probably say that my brain is a bit addled from being on vacation, I have concluded that In a Dark, Dark Wood is probably a perfect, forgettable summer vacation read.

The setup for the novel is great! Leonora (Lee or Nora, depending on who is addressing her) has received an invitation for a “hen party” (we would say bachelorette party} for a friend, Clare, who she has not seen for ten years. Nora can't imagine why she has been invited, but another university friend is also invited, and so the two women decide to venture out to a glass vacation house deep in the Northumberland woods where the party is going to take place. Only a few invitees arrive for the weekend, and Nora feels very apprehensive about the arrival of Clare, the guest of honor, because Clare knows something about Nora that no one else attending knows. Is that why she was invited—so Clare can expose her?

The plot is very atmospheric. The house is eerie; the woods foreboding. The guests are all narcissistic, and the party hostess is crazy. Very Agatha Christie. Early on we know that there is going to be a murder; the scenes at the house are interspersed with scenes at the hospital where Nora is suffering from amnesia following some terrible something—we don’t know what. We also don’t know if she is the murderer or a victim. 

One telling moment in the plot setup occurs when Tom, a playwright and one of the guests, gazes out the glass wall at the woods and muses “The audience . . . the audience is out there.”  Aah, now I get it! We are the audience for an unfolding drama, and the people in the glass house are like the actors in a play. And this, friends, is the failing of the book. The characters in this drama are rather wooden, and forgettable.

That being said, I enjoyed In a Dark, Dark Woods on three levels—the setup, which I have already mentioned; the setting, which is very appropriately introduced; and the suspense which builds nicely. On the other hand, two of the plot devices are mechanistic—amnesia and lost love. Ware rather beats the reader over the head with the amnesia plot device, telling us again and again why Nora is suffering from amnesia. The other device I dislike for more personal reasons, and that is lamenting over lost love. I just don’t believe that a young woman could be still holding on to the memory of a teenage love affair, no matter how tragically it ended. Nora is too unbelievably damaged. Clare, on the other hand, may be the most believable—an actress who is always on stage. I have known some of them.

The reviewer in USA Today feels the same way I do about the book and its author. Ruth Ware is a first-time author full of potential, which can be seen in her deft use of mood and setting. One would hope that she could develop character and plot better in the next go around.

Well, dear readers, if you are on an Alaskan cruise and looking for something to read in between glaciers and mountains, all-you-can-eat buffets and wildlife sightings, I can recommend In a Dark, Dark Woods. Otherwise, pass this one up. Read The Girl on the Train—the amnesia is better.

The review in USA Today.
An interview with Ruth Ware on NPR.

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