The Mother-in-Law


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Right away when I heard we were going to read this book I thought of the movie Monster-in-Law with Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda.  There may be as much animosity between the women in each role but in the book it is a lot more subtle.  We know the tension is there because we are told it is but if we were in the room with these characters we might not pick up on it.  In fact, Lucy tells us her husband Ollie wouldn't pick up on the tension between her and Diana (Ollie's mum).  She's a "mum" because it's set in Australia, just as our recent read The Husband's Secret.

The book has a relatively small cast of characters that includes: Ollie Goodwin is 48 and married to Lucy.  Lucy is 40 and they have three children: Archie - 7, Harriet - 4, Edie - 2.  Ollie's parents are Tom and Diana. Tom was orphaned and lived with his grandparents in a rural area.  He left school at 14 and apprenticed to a plumber.  He befriended the right people and got into building retirement communities with them and thus built a successful life for he and Diana.  Diana is tall and slim and runs a charity for pregnant immigrants.  Ollie's sister is Antoinette (Nettie).  She is a 42 year old marketing executive married to Patrick.  They have no children. 


On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex: 0

Religion: 1

Gruesome: 2

Suspense: 3

Morality: 2

Traditional: 5

Sex - nothing memorable

Religion - "Catholic shame fell harder than I thought." (Pg. 91)  A funeral is planned as non-denominational with no hymns because the deceased "harsh[ly] reject[ed their] Catholic upbringing." (Ch. 14, Pg. 105)  "We came from a tight-knit neighborhood, Catholic no less." (Pg. 190)

Gruesome - a minor scene when Diana remembers Ollie and Nettie almost drowning, a toddler requires an ambulance

Suspense - there are many occurrences of light suspense, or perhaps it is better described as intrigue, throughout the novel: hints that Ollie is in financial trouble with his business, where had Pammy gone in Chapter 13, did Diana escape at the end of Chapter 13, was the suicide really a murder, what was the true story about the cancer, what happened to Nettie's wrist.  We never do hear any more about Pammy.

Morality - Business partners curse and fight. (end Ch. 31, Pg. 199)  A person becomes so obsessed with reaching their goal that they will stop at nothing.  A man neither denies nor confirms having multiple affairs.

Traditional - an unwed young woman goes to a home for unwed mothers (Ch. 13)  There are no references to homosexual relationships.  Everyone gets along with any level of wealth or any race.

I enjoyed this story and these characters, in spite of the sad undertones of the plot.  These characters felt a lot like the characters in "The Husband's Secret" or "In Five Years".  

I do have a pet peeve - a couple of times the author wrote dialogue with a character saying, for example, "I'm Sr. Constable Arthur...". (Pg. 4)  What does that sound like?  I'm capital-s-r-period constable...  When a person is speaking it should never include an abbreviation unless that is how it is said, like CNN or NBC.  It should've been written as I'm Senior Constable Arthur... .

While the story was enjoyable and Lucy is very much the every-woman, there were parts that just seemed trite.  Lucy is just as relatable as Cecilia from "The Husband's Secret" but with Lucy we get the overused relatability of the days with a newborn whereas with Cecilia we got wearing two different shoes.  I've had both of those experiences but the shoes are more novel and fresh. The foreshadowing was rather obvious when Diana reflected that "when left to their own devices, bitter people can do bad things". (Pg. 133) and at the end of Ch. 19 when Lucy reflects, "It's not as if Eamon is a criminal." (Pg. 136)  It seemed like the editor fell asleep on page 189 with the repeated phrasing of "not much more than a shed" and the typo of it for at in the sentence, "But it least it kept me busy...".

In spite of the obvious hints, I am impressed with Hepworth's ability to juggle so many secrets and characters and timelines and yet I never have to flip back to see if I missed something or because I'm confused or forgot a detail.  She also does a GREAT job, in Chapter 43, of looking inside the feelings of grief. 

Discussion Questions

Chapter 2 begins with the maxim "There's the family you're born into and the one you choose."  Lucy doesn't agree because you don't choose your kids or your mother-in-law.  Do you have a memorable story to share about meeting your in-laws?

Right away Lucy craves a relationship with Diana. (Ch. 2)  How much did you expect to be close to your mother-in-law?  Is it different for Lucy because her mum died when she was young. (Pg. 18)

What do you want for your children?  Diana wants hardship and challenge. (Ch. 4, Pg. 33)

Diana was not thrilled about wedding dress shopping. (Ch. 4) 
Do you have a wedding dress experience to share?

Lucy wore something of her mum's almost daily and multiple items when she especially wanted to feel close.  Do you have special items of comfort from a deceased loved one?  (Ch. 6, Pg. 44)

In Chapter 10 we see some obvious signs of insecurity in Diana.  Were there some that were more subtle in earlier pages?  In reality people often miss signs of depression in people they are close to. 
Did you believe that Diana was hiding depression?

Does your family have any "processes" about money? 
Did you support Lucy's stance with Ollie after they left his parents house? (Ch. 12)

Diana says, "I've heard it said that every parent spends 80 percent of their energy on 1 child, and spreads the remaining 20 percent among any other children." (Ch. 15, Pg. 108)  Do you feel that your energy was imbalanced among your children?

There are several hints dropped that something is amiss with Nettie. (Ch. 14 & 15) 
What did you think was going on with her?

Lucy thinks mother-in-laws can say anything and get away with it. (Ch. 22, Pg. 151) 
Do you agree?  What outrageous things has your mother-in-law said?

Why did Ollie not know Nettie has having problems conceiving? (Ch. 27, Pg. 176)

In Chapter 27 we see "Christmasgate" from Lucy's view.  In Chapter 29 we see it from Diana's.   Should Diana have amended her policy and helped Nettie with IVF? (end Ch. 27)  Now that you have seen both sides, which side are you on?

Was Lucy right to tell the lawyer it had nothing to do with her? (end Ch. 28)  What about Patrick?

Tom compared Diana's baby situation to Nettie's. (Ch. 29, Pg. 184)  He thinks it's a question of support. 
Diana thinks it's finances.  Which is it?  Or is it both?

Diana holds back from saying things to Nettie because she doesn't want to lose any more of her daughter than she already has (to adulthood, to Patrick). (Ch. 29, Pg. 185)  Do you hold back with your children in order to maintain closeness?  Should you?  At what point will the adult relationship be resettled enough to share true feelings?

In 1970 Diana spent 10 days in the hospital when she had her first child!  And who paid the bill?  How many days did you stay in the hospital?

The author weaves several story threads: Diana's past (1970s), Nettie and Patrick, Ollie and Lucy, Diana and Lucy.  Which story line did you like best?  

Has your child ever been seriously injured while in someone else's care? 
Did you hold a grudge against them?  How did you work past it?

Chapter 38 was very insightful.  Nurse Ingrid says, "Everyone's wanted to give their mother-in-law a head injury at least once in their life." (Pg. 235)  She also says, "Everyone, given enough time, will get on your nerves if they join your family." (Pg. 236)  Ingrid believes sons-in-law don't fight with their fathers-in-law because they don't care enough and in the daughter-in-law / mother-in-law relationship they care too much.  Do you agree with her philosophy?  When Lucy notes that Diana still refers to her grown offspring as kids she thinks maybe the view of their child through a mom's eyes is "at the root of all our problems". (Pg. 239) 
How hard is it for you to relate to your grown children as adults?  Does it cause any problems?

Lucy often indicates she'd like less screen time for her children - but so often it seems necessary, like during the funeral. (Ch. 42)  What were your aspirations for limits or habits when your children were young? 
Were you successful?  Share strategies.

Why did Diana not correct Dr. Paisley when she referred to Lucy as Diana's daughter?  (Ch. 45)

Did Nettie's request surprise you?  We knew Lucy and Nettie had tension between them - what did you think was the cause of it?  (Ch. 47)

Do you share VEI's philosophy? (Ch. 48)

Patrick tells Diana that Nettie's always had to compete for her attention against the refugee women.  (end Ch. 55)  Did she?  Against what things do your children have to compete with for your attention?  Did you have to compete for your mother's attention?  Against what?

Why did Ollie, at 48, after not investing in several of Eamon's schemes, not understand where all the money went?

Diana thinks a son's love for his mum is more "pure" and "untainted" than a daughter's.  (Ch. 57, Pg. 314)  She reflects that "Sons see the best parts of you, but daughters really see you.  They see your flaws and your weaknesses.  They see everything they don't want to be.  They see you for exactly what you are...and they hate you for it." (Ch. 59, Pg. 324)  Think of your relationship with your mother.  Do you agree with Diana?  Do you think your daughter would agree?  Is it the reverse for children and fathers - do sons see their flaws and daughters love them purely?  

Lucy cherishes Diana's written wisdom: I worked hard for everything I ever cared about.  And nothing I ever cared about cost a single cent." (Ch. 59, Pg. 320)  Can you say the same thing?

Nettie says if parents do their job correctly, "they will keep your feet on the ground."  Otherwise, "they'll stop you from flying.  The difference is subtle, yet vast."  (Pg. 326)  Discuss how you, as a parent, can walk this thin line with your children.

After Nettie thought she solved her problem (Ch. 60), and was cleaning up - what else should she have done?  (She wore gloves but she should have...)

Ollie said if Nettie didn't have fertility issues, two more people would still be alive. (Pg. 339)  Do you agree? 

Did you always believe it was a suicide?  If you changed your mind, what convinced you?

The cover says, "Everyone in this family is hiding something".  Discuss what each character was hiding, what the clues were, and when you discovered the secret.

Theme Ideas

Serve burgers like Ollie was serving in Chapter 1 when they were interrupted by a knock at the door.

Serve roast lamb and cauliflower cheese like when Lucy met Ollie's parents. (Ch. 2, Pg. 15)

Serve chicken like Diana brought to Lucy in Chapter 10.

Serve potato salad, sausage and burgers like when Eamon & Bella went to dinner at Ollie & Lucy's. (Ch. 23, Pg. 184)

Set out a jar of Tim Tams like Dido always had for Archie.  (Ch. 25, Pg. 166)

Recreate the Christmas before "Christmasgate" (Ch. 27): pop Christmas crackers, serve prawns in Thousand Island sauce for the seafood starter, "turkey, veggies, gravy, [and] plum pudding". Serve Victoria Bitter (beer) and chardonnay.  (It appears that prawns are shrimp.)

Serve Kahwah like Ghezala sometimes brought to Diana. (Ch. 30, Pg. 187)

Serve gummy bears like Lucy had for the kids at the funeral. (Ch. 35)

Serve chicken sandwiches, cake, soft drinks, wine, coffee and tea like at the funeral. (Ch. 42, Pg. 255 & 256)

Give a celtic knot to your guests like Diana loaned Lucy for the wedding. (Ch. 6, Pg. 46)

Play Truth or Dare like Eamon suggested at the dinner party in Ch. 23.

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