Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2019

The Mother-in-Law (2019), by Sally Hepworth

The Mother-in-Law is local Melbourne author Sally Hepworth’s fifth novel.  I’ve previously read The Things We Keep (still her best novel IMO) and The Family Next Door and once again I approached her novel as light reading with an ‘issue’ (to balance the challenge of reading The Atheist by Indonesian author Achdiat K. Mihardja, about which more later).

The blurb for the Mother-in-Law goes like this:

Someone once told me that you have two families in your life – the one you are born into and the one you choose. Yes, you may get to choose your partner, but you don’t choose your mother-in-law. The cackling mercenaries of fate determine it all.
From the moment Lucy met Diana, she was kept at arm’s length. Diana is exquisitely polite, but Lucy knows, even after marrying Oliver, that they’ll never have the closeness she’d been hoping for. But who could fault Diana? She was a pillar of the community, an advocate for social justice, the matriarch of a loving family. Lucy had wanted so much to please her new mother-in-law.  That was ten years ago. Now, Diana has been found dead, leaving a suicide note. But the autopsy reveals evidence of suffocation. And everyone in the family is hiding something… From the bestselling author of The Family Next Door comes a new page-turner about that trickiest of relationships.

While I wouldn’t call this story ‘crime fiction’, it’s the mystery of Diana’s death and strange behaviour that drives the novel and I didn’t really feel that the explanation in the final chapters was consistent with the characterisation.  (Though that is something that book groups could discuss: do/can people really change that much?) The basis of the conflict between Lucy and Diana, is that Lucy is very much a self-made woman who has overcome a difficult beginning (the ‘secret’ that seems to be obligatory for contemporary ‘women’s fiction) while Lucy appears not to have had the same challenges in her life.  Diana, (whose mantra is Strength) judges her for that, and motherless Lucy’s (justifiable) neediness about wanting a mother-daughter relationship makes her hyper-sensitive to Diana’s distant behaviour.  Since Diana and Tom are wealthy, both her adult children Oliver and Nettie have ‘expectations’ which will one day help them with their financial difficulties, but in the meantime, Diana’s inflexible belief that they should make their own way, causes undercurrents of conflict.

I haven’t investigated whether there are book group questions for The Mother-in-Law but these issues will no doubt exercise books groups: the costs of stay-at-home mothering; expectations of financial help from parents to buy housing or for other important purposes; assumptions about grandparents providing child care; whether charity begins at home or not; and the ethical issues and assumptions surrounding medical intervention for Lucy’s childless sister-in-law Nettie.   And then there is another major moral dilemma which #NoSpoilers is revealed late in the book.  However, it is this dilemma and the way that both Lucy and Diana’s characterisation changes that seems flawed to me.

Still, it’s an engaging novel, and as Theresa Smith says in her review the dual narration offers an insight into the perspectives of both the women.

Hepworth also has a keen eye for the ridiculous elements of modern life… her depiction of the fitness instructor Bella who has transitioned into being a fitness influencer with a hundred and twenty-two thousand followers on Instagram is hilarious.  Lucy needn’t have worried about going heavy on the mayonnaise at this dinner party, because Bella — taking time out from analysing the best performance posts and looking at the hashtags [she’s] using like #fitspo and #fitnessporn — has brought her own dinner…

‘Champagne glasses, Luce?’ Eamon says.
A few minutes later he returns with four glasses, filled to the brim. ‘I said I didn’t want any!’ Bella exclaims as he pushes a glass into her hand.  ‘I’m on a cleanse.’
‘Nothing better for cleansing than champagne,’ he saus cheerily.
‘Who is cleansing?’ Ollie asks, appearing in the kitchen with a tray of overcooked meat.
‘Bella,’ Eamon and I say together.
Ollie glances at the meat on his tray the same way I looked at my salads.
‘Don’t worry,’ Bella says, smiling. ‘I brought my own food.’
Ollie gawps at her.  ‘You brought your own food?’
She unzips a brightly coloured cool-bag that I’d previously thought was her purse.  ‘I meal prep at the start of the week, so it’s no trouble really.  All I need is a plate.  Easiest guest you’ve ever had, right?’ She laughs.  (p.161)

The travails of modern parenting with screens is also well-rendered, as I witnessed just the other day when visiting a friend with children!

Author: Sally Hepworth
Title: The Mother-in-Law
Publisher: Macmillan, 2019, p346
ISBN: 9781760552183
Review copy courtesy of Macmillan



  1. I’m glad you didn’t mind this one. It’s such a tricky novel to review with any depth because all roads lead to spoilers. I like that excerpt at the end, you’re right, Sally definitely has an eye to the ridiculous. I do need to read further back than The Family Next Door, I think. I have at least one older title of Sally’s on my shelf. Thanks for the mention too!


    • I really thought that The Things We Keep was a masterful story about dementia. I liked it because she never lost sight of her character as a person, even though her memory was going.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your suggested book group themes/ questions would be like throwing a bomb into my book group 😂 So maybe we should read this!


  3. Mother in law issues. This resonates with me somehow as I never had that close relationship with mine. She indeed kept me at arms length till much later when she had an epiphany. :-) This theme is universal I dare say. I should love to read this book. Happy New Year, Lisa. :-)


    • Hello Celestine, lovely to hear from you:)
      Yes, I think it probably is a universal theme. Odd that fathers-in-law don’t have the same reputation, isn’t it?


  4. Two of the books you’ve reviewed recently have been about the lives of quiet middle class women, and I’ve been at loss how to make an intelligent comment. In relation to this one, my wives and my brothers’ wives all had interesting relationships with my mother, not adversarial but she is very pro ‘her boys’. My own m.i.l’s were much more fun.


    • I am, of course, a MIL myself…


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