Some plots are more equal than others and the plot to Ruth Ware’s debut novel is one. Nora (Leonora) writes crime novels and lives alone in London. She works from home and interacts with others primarily through email and text–and she prefers it. She ventures outside several times a week to run, which she enjoys because of the sense of escape, of running away. Ok, we got it. She has issues, but what are they?
Ware begins with a familiar plot device–starting near the end. Nora is in a hospital with wounds she cannot remember receiving. Rather than wondering what happened to her, Nora’s first impulse is to wonder what she has done. Curiosity piqued.
We get our first peek at Nora’s issues when Ware goes back to the near beginning. Nora receives an email invitation to a hen party in Northumberland and wonders, why am I invited? The hen is a woman she has not seen in ten years, since she was sixteen and left her hometown of Reading. A quick email to a childhood friend who also lives in London, Nina, and a pact and, boom, they are both rsvp’ing to the hen party.
On the drive to the party, we find out that Nora fled Reading and her mother now lives in Australia with Nora’s stepfather, whom Nora does not seem to like much. Nina is a tall, spiked-tongued, bronzed doctor with a Brazilian father. Both Nora and Nina have mixed feelings about the hen, Clare, but are curious about the invite. The party is in a modern glass-walled house in a deserted wood down a nearly unnavigable drive. The other guests include Clare’s university friends, Melanie, Tom (gay), and Flo (the maid of honor and hostess of the hen party). Melanie is leaving her six-month-old for the first time. Tom is a playwright. Flo is too enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm continues to reveal itself suggesting mental instability supported by Melanie’s divulging that Flo had a breakdown at university and never finished. Whatever her state, Flo is utterly devoted to Clare and pledged to give her the best hen party ever for the best hen ever.
Nora, claustrophobic almost on arriving, takes a run in the near-dark and encounters Clare as she comes back up the drive. This gives Clare an opportunity to tell Nora that she is not invited to the wedding, at which Clare will wed Nora’s childhood sweetheart, James. That is just the beginning of the weird. There is no cell service at the house, which becomes creepier as dark falls and the inhabitants realize they are on view to whatever lurks in the woods. The guests take the edge off with tequila and begin to reveal bits of their stories and personalities.
Ware continues to move between the hospital, where Nora’s memory slowly returns, and the events of the hen party, which becomes creepier and creepier and includes a shotgun hung over the fireplace, a trip to the shooting range, and a night with a Ouija board. Finally we learn that the party ended with the shooting of a midnight visitor.
I read the first half of the novel before bed and was seriously concerned that I would suffer nightmares as a consequence. It was that good. I finished in the morning, unable to put it down from waking until the last page. As with other really good crime novels, I was uncertain whodunit until the end. It was so good, I am considering re-reading it as an audible book to savor the drama enhanced by a good reader.