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The Mother-in-Law

The Mother-in-Law

by Sally Hepworth


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"Deliciously entertaining!" —People Magazine's "People Pick"
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O Magazine’s "15 Best Beach Books of the Year So Far"
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A twisty, compelling new novel about one woman's complicated relationship with her mother-in-law that ends in death...

From the moment Lucy met her husband’s mother, she knew she wasn’t the wife Diana had envisioned for her perfect son. Exquisitely polite, friendly, and always generous, Diana nonetheless kept Lucy at arm’s length despite her desperate attempts to win her over. And as a pillar in the community, an advocate for female refugees, and a woman happily married for decades, no one had a bad word to say about Diana…except Lucy.

That was five years ago.

Now, Diana is dead, a suicide note found near her body claiming that she longer wanted to live because of the cancer wreaking havoc inside her body.

But the autopsy finds no cancer.

It does find traces of poison, and evidence of suffocation.

Who could possibly want Diana dead? Why was her will changed at the eleventh hour to disinherit both of her children, and their spouses? And what does it mean that Lucy isn’t exactly sad she’s gone?

Fractured relationships and deep family secrets grow more compelling with every page in this twisty, captivating new novel from Sally Hepworth.

Praise for Sally Hepworth:

“With jaw-dropping discoveries, and realistic consequences, this novel is not to be missed. Perfect for lovers of Big Little Lies.” —Library Journal, starred review

"Hepworth deftly keeps the reader turning pages and looking for clues, all the while building multilayered characters and carefully doling out bits of their motivations." —Booklist

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250120939
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/10/2020
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 17,660
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

SALLY HEPWORTH is a human resource professional. A graduate of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, Sally started writing novels after the birth of her first child. Sally has lived around the world, spending extended periods in Singapore, the UK, and Canada, and she now writes full-time from her home in Melbourne, where she lives with her husband and three young children. She is the author of several novels, including The Family Next Door and The Mother's Promise.

Read an Excerpt



I am folding laundry at my kitchen table when the police car pulls up. There's no fanfare — no sirens or flashing lights — yet that little niggle starts in the pit of my stomach, Mother Nature's warning that all is not well. It's getting dark out, early evening, and the neighbors' porch lights are starting to come on. It's dinnertime. Police don't arrive on your doorstep at dinnertime unless something is wrong.

I glance through the archway to the living room where my slothful children are stretched across different pieces of furniture, angled toward their respective devices. Alive. Unharmed. In good health apart from, perhaps, a mild screen addiction. Seven-year-old Archie is watching a family play Wii games on the big iPad; four-year-old Harriet is watching little girls in America unwrap toys on the little iPad. Even two-year-old Edie is staring, slack-jawed, at the television. I feel some measure of comfort that my family is all under this roof. At least most of them are. Dad, I think suddenly. Oh no, please not Dad.

I look back at the police car. The headlights illuminate a light mist of rain.

At least it's not the children, a guilty little voice in my head whispers. At least it isn't Ollie. Ollie is on the back deck, grilling burgers. Safe. He came home from work early today, not feeling well apparently, though he doesn't seem particularly unwell. In any case, he's alive and I'm wholeheartedly grateful for that.

The rain has picked up a little now, turning the mist into distinct, precise raindrops. The police kill the engine, but don't get out right away. I ball up a pair of Ollie's socks and place them on top of his pile and then reach for another pair. I should stand up, go to the door, but my hands continue to fold on autopilot, as if by continuing to act normally the police car will cease to exist and all will be right in the world again. But it doesn't work. Instead, a uniformed policeman emerges from the driver's seat.

"Muuuuum!" Harriet calls. "Edie is watching the TV!"

Two weeks ago, a prominent news journalist had spoken out publicly about her "revulsion" that children under the age of three were exposed to TV, actually going so far as to call it "child abuse." Like most Australian mothers, I'd been incensed about this and followed with the predictable diatribe of, "What would she know? She probably has a team of nannies and hasn't looked after her children for a day in her life!" before swiftly instating the "no screens for Edie rule" which lasted until twenty minutes ago when I was on the phone with the energy company, and Edie decided to try the old "Mum, muuuum, MUUUUUM ..." trick until I relented, popping on an episode of Play School and retreating to the bedroom to finish my phone call.

"It's all right, Harriet," I say, my eyes still on the window.

Harriet's cross little face appears in front of me, her dark brown hair and thick fringe swishing around her face like a mop. "But you SAID ..."

"Never mind what I said. A few minutes won't hurt."

The cop looks to be midtwenties, thirty at a push. His police hat is in his hand but he wedges it under one arm to tug at the front of his too-tight trousers. A short, rotund policewoman of a similar age gets out of the passenger side, her hat firmly on her head. They come around the car and start up the path side by side. They are definitely coming to our place. Nettie, I think suddenly. It's about Nettie.

It's possible. Ollie's sister has certainly had her share of health issues lately. Or maybe it's Patrick? Or is it something else entirely?

The fact is, part of me knows it's not Nettie or Patrick, or Dad. It's funny sometimes what you just know.

"Burgers are up."

The fly screen door scrapes open and Ollie appears at the back door holding a plate of meat. The girls flock to him and he snaps his "crocodile tongs" while they jump up and down, squealing loudly enough to nearly drown out the knock at the door.


"Was that the door?" Ollie raises an eyebrow, curious rather than concerned. In fact, he looks animated. An unexpected guest on a weeknight! Who could it be?

Ollie is the social one of the two of us, the one that volunteers on the Parents and Friends' committee at the kids' school because "it's a good way to meet people," who hangs over the back fence to say hi to the neighbors if he hears them talking in the garden, who approaches people who look vaguely familiar and tries to figure out if they know each other. A people person. To Ollie, an unexpected knock on the door during the week signals excitement rather than doom.

But, of course, he hasn't seen the cop car.

Edie tears down the corridor. "I get it, I get it."

"Hold on a minute, Edie-bug," Ollie says, looking for somewhere to put down the tray of burgers. He isn't fast enough though because by the time he finds some counter space, Edie has already tossed open the door.

"Poleeth!" she says, awed.

This, of course, is the part where I should run after her, intercept the police at the door and apologize, but my feet are concreted to the floor. Luckily, Ollie is already jogging up behind Edie, ruffling her hair playfully.

"G'day," he says to the cops. He glances over his shoulder back into the house, his mind caught up in the action of a few seconds ago, perhaps wondering if he remembered to turn off the gas canister or checking that he'd placed the burger plate securely on the counter. It's the classic, unassuming behavior of someone about to get bad news. I actually feel like I am watching us all on a TV show — the handsome clueless dad, the cute toddler. The regular suburban family who are about to have their lives turned inside out ... ruined forever.

"What can I do for you?" Ollie says finally, turning his attention back to the cops.

"I'm Sr. Constable Arthur," I hear a woman say, though I can't see her from my vantage point, "and this is Constable Perkins. Are you Oliver Goodwin?"

"I am." Ollie smiles down at Edie, even throws her a wink. It's enough to convince me that I'm being overly dramatic. Even if there's bad news, it may not be that bad. It may not even be our bad news. Perhaps one of the neighbors was burgled? Police always canvased the area after something like that, didn't they?

Suddenly I look forward to that moment in a few minutes' time when I know that everything's fine. I think about how Ollie and I will laugh about how paranoid I was. You won't believe what I thought, I'll say to him, and he'll roll his eyes and smile. Always worrying, he'll say. How do you ever get anything done with all that worrying?

But when I edge forward a few paces, I see that my worrying isn't unnecessary. I see it in the somberness of the policeman's expression, in the downward turn of the corners of his mouth.

The policewoman glances at Edie, then back at Ollie. "Is there somewhere we can talk ... privately?"

The first traces of uncertainty appear on Ollie's face. His shoulders stiffen and he stands a little bit taller. Perhaps unconsciously, he pushes Edie back from the door, behind him, shielding her from something.

"Edie-bug, would you like me to put on The Wiggles?" I say, stepping forward finally.

Edie shakes her head resolutely, her gaze not shifting from the police. Her soft round face is alight with interest; her chunky, wobbly legs are planted with improbable firmness.

"Come on, honey," I try again, sweeping a hand over her pale gold hair. "How about an ice cream?"

This is more of a dilemma for Edie. She glances at me, watching for a long moment, assessing whether I can be trusted. Finally I shout for Archie to get out the Paddle Pops and she scampers off down the hallway.

"Come in," Ollie says to the police, and they do, sending me a quick, polite smile. A sorry smile. A smile that pierces my heart, unpicks me a little. It's not the neighbors, that smile says. This bad news is yours.

There aren't a lot of private communal areas in our house so Ollie guides the police to the dining room and pulls out a couple of chairs. I follow, pushing my newly folded laundry into a basket. The piles collapse into each other like tumbling buildings. The police sit on the chairs, Ollie balances on the arm of the sofa, and I remain sharply upright, stiff. Bracing.

"Firstly I need to confirm that you are relatives of Diana Goodwin —"

"Yes," Ollie says, "she's my mother."

"Then I'm very sorry to inform you," the policewoman starts, and I close my eyes because I already know what she is going to say.

My mother-in-law is dead.



Ten years ago ...

Someone once told me that you have two families in your life — the one you are born into and the one you choose. But that's not entirely true, is it? Yes, you may get to choose your partner, but you don't, for instance, choose your children. You don't choose your brothers- or sisters-in-law, you don't choose your partner's spinster aunt with the drinking problem or cousin with the revolving door of girlfriends who don't speak English. More importantly, you don't choose your mother-in-law. The cackling mercenaries of fate determine it all.

"Hello?" Ollie calls. "Anybody home?"

I stand in the yawning foyer of the Goodwins' home and pan around at the marble extending out in every direction. A winding staircase sweeps from the basement up to the first floor beneath a magnificent crystal chandelier. I feel like I've stepped into the pages of a Hello! magazine spread, the ones with the ridiculous photos of celebrities sprawling on ornate furniture, and on grassy knolls in riding boots with golden retrievers at their feet. I've always pictured that this is what the inside of Buckingham Palace must look like, or if not Buckingham, at least one of the smaller palaces — St. James's or Clarence House.

I try to catch Ollie's eye, to ... what? Admonish him? Cheer? Quite frankly I'm not sure but it's moot since he's already charging into the house, announcing our arrival. To say I'm unprepared for this is the most glorious of understatements. When Ollie had suggested I come to his parents' house for dinner, I'd been picturing lasagna and salad in a quaint, blond-brick bungalow, the kind of home I'd grown up in. I'd pictured an adoring mother clasping a photo album of sepia-colored baby photos and a brusquely proud but socially awkward father, clasping a can of beer and a cautious smile. Instead, artwork and sculptures were uplit and gleaming, and the parents, socially awkward or otherwise, are nowhere to be seen.

"Ollie!" I catch Ollie's elbow and am about to whisper furiously when a plump ruddy-faced man rushes through a large arched doorway at the back of the house, clutching a glass of red wine.

"Dad!" Ollie cries. "There you are!"

"Well, well. Look who the cat dragged in."

Tom Goodwin is the very opposite of his tall, dark-haired son. Short, overweight and unstylish, his red-checked shirt is tucked into chinos that are belted below his substantial paunch. He throws his arms around his son, and Ollie thumps his old man on the back.

"You must be Lucy," Tom says, after releasing Ollie. He takes my hand and pumps it heartily, letting out a low whistle. "My word. Well done, son."

"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Goodwin." I smile.

"Tom! Call me Tom." He smiles at me like he's won the Easter raffle, then he appears to remember himself. "Diana! Diana, where are you? They're here!"

After a moment or two Ollie's mother emerges from the back of the house. She's wearing a white shirt and navy slacks and brushing nonexistent crumbs from the front of her shirt. I suddenly wonder about my outfit choice, a full-skirted 1950s red and white polka-dot dress that had belonged to my mother. I thought it would be charming but now it just seems outlandish and stupid, especially given Ollie's mum's plain and demure attire.

"I'm sorry," she says, from several paces away. "I didn't hear the bell."

"This is Lucy," Tom says.

Diana extends her hand. As I reach for it, I notice that she is almost a full head taller than her husband, despite her flat shoes, and she is thin as a street post, apart from a slight middle-aged thickening at the waist. She has silver hair cut into an elegant, chin-length bob, a straight Roman nose, and unlike Tom, bears a strong resemblance to her son.

I also notice that her handshake is cold.

"It's nice to meet you, Mrs. Goodwin," I say, dropping her hand to offer the bunch of flowers I'm carrying. I'd insisted on stopping at the florist on the way, even though Ollie had said, "Flowers aren't really her thing."

"Flowers are every woman's thing," I'd replied with a roll of my eyes. But as I take in her lack of jewelry, her unpainted nails and sensible shoes, I start to get the feeling that I'm wrong.

"Hello, Mum," Ollie says, pulling his mother in a bear hug, which she accepts, if not quite embraces. I know, from many conversations with Ollie, that he adores his mother. He practically bursts with pride as he talks about the charity she runs single-handedly for refugees in Australia, many of them pregnant or with small children. Of course she would think flowers were trivial, I realize suddenly. I'm an idiot. Perhaps I should have brought baby clothes, or maternity supplies?

"All right, Ollie," she says after a moment or two, when he doesn't let her go. She pulls herself upright. "I haven't even had a chance to say hello properly to Lucy!"

"Why don't we head to the lounge for some drinks and we can all get to know each other better," Tom says, and we all turn toward the back of the house. That's when I notice a face peeking around the corner.

"Nettie!" Ollie cries.

If there is a lack of resemblance between Ollie and Tom, there is no doubt Antoinette is Tom's daughter. She has his ruddy cheeks and stockiness, while at the same time being endearingly pretty. Stylish too, in a grey woolen dress and black suede boots. According to Ollie, his younger sister is married, childless and some sort of executive at a marketing company who is often asked to speak at conferences about women and the glass ceiling. At thirty-two years old, only two years older than me, I'd found this impressive and a little intimidating, but it is all swept under the rug when she greets me with an enormous bear hug. The Goodwins, it appears, are huggers.

All of them, perhaps, except Diana.

"I've heard so much about you," Nettie says. She links her arm with mine and I am engulfed in a cloud of expensive-smelling perfume. "Come and meet my husband, Patrick."

Nettie drags me through an arched doorway, past what looks like an elevator — an elevator! As we walk we pass framed artwork and floral arrangements, and photos of family holidays on the ski slopes and at the beach. There is one photo of Tom, Diana, Nettie and Ollie on camels in the desert with a pyramid in the background, all of them holding hands and raising their hands skyward.

Growing up, I used to go to the beach town of Portarlington for holidays, less than an hour's drive from my house.

We stop in a room that is roughly the size of my apartment, filled with sofas and armchairs, huge, expensive-looking rugs and heavy wooden side tables. A gigantic man rises from an armchair.

"Patrick," he says. His handshake is clammy but he looks apologetic so I pretend not to notice.

"Lucy. Nice to meet you."

I'm not sure what I expected for Nettie — perhaps someone small, sharp, eager to please, like her. At six feet three inches, I thought Ollie was tall, but Patrick is positively mountain-like — six seven at least. Apart from his height, he reminds me a little of Tom, in his plaid shirt and chinos, his round face and eager smile. He has a knitted sweater around his shoulders, preppy-style.

With all greetings out of the way, Ollie, Tom and Patrick sink into the large couch and Diana and Nettie wander off toward a drinks table. I hesitate a moment, then fall into step beside the women.

"You sit down, Lucy," Diana directs me.

"Oh, I'm happy to help —"

But Diana raises her hand like a stop sign. "Please," she says. "Just sit."

Diana is obviously trying to be polite, but I can't help but feel a little rejected. She isn't to know, of course, that I'd fantasized about bumping elbows with her in the kitchen, perhaps even facing a little salad crisis together that I could overcome by whipping up a makeshift dressing (a salad crisis was about all my culinary capabilities could stretch to). She isn't to know that I'd imagined nestling up to her as she took me through photo albums, family trees and long-winded stories that Ollie would groan about. She doesn't know I'd planned to spend the entire evening by her side, and by the time we went home, she'd be as enamored with me as I'd be with her.

Instead, I sat.

"So, you and Ollie work together?" Tom asks me, as I plant myself next to Ollie on the sofa.

"We do," I say. "Have done for three years."

"Three years?" Tom feigns shock. "Took your time, didn't you, mate?"

"It was a slow burn," Ollie says.

Ollie had been the classic, solid guy from work. The one always available to listen to my most terrible dating stories and offer a sympathetic shoulder. Ollie, unlike the powerful, take-charge assholes that I tended to date, was cheerful, unassuming and a consistently good guy. Most importantly, he adored me. It had taken me a while to realize it, but being adored was much nicer than being messed around by charismatic bastards.


Excerpted from "The Mother-in-Law"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Sally Hepworth.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
Chapter 1: Lucy,
Chapter 2: Lucy,
Chapter 3: Lucy,
Chapter 4: Diana,
Chapter 5: Lucy,
Chapter 6: Lucy,
Chapter 7: Lucy,
Chapter 8: Diana,
Chapter 9: Lucy,
Chapter 10: Diana,
Chapter 11: Lucy,
Chapter 12: Lucy,
Chapter 13: Diana,
Chapter 14: Lucy,
Chapter 15: Diana,
Chapter 16: Lucy,
Chapter 17: Lucy,
Chapter 18: Diana,
Chapter 19: Lucy,
Chapter 20: Lucy,
Chapter 21: Diana,
Chapter 22: Lucy,
Chapter 23: Lucy,
Chapter 24: Lucy,
Chapter 25: Lucy,
Chapter 26: Lucy,
Chapter 27: Lucy,
Chapter 28: Lucy,
Chapter 29: Diana,
Chapter 30: Diana,
Chapter 31: Lucy,
Chapter 32: Lucy,
Chapter 33: Lucy,
Chapter 34: Diana,
Chapter 35: Lucy,
Chapter 36: Diana,
Chapter 37: Lucy,
Chapter 38: Lucy,
Chapter 39: Lucy,
Chapter 40: Lucy,
Chapter 41: Lucy,
Chapter 42: Lucy,
Chapter 43: Diana,
Chapter 44: Lucy,
Chapter 45: Lucy,
Chapter 46: Lucy,
Chapter 47: Lucy,
Chapter 48: Diana,
Chapter 49: Lucy,
Chapter 50: Diana,
Chapter 51: Diana,
Chapter 52: Diana,
Chapter 53: Lucy,
Chapter 54: Diana,
Chapter 55: Diana,
Chapter 56: Diana,
Chapter 57: Diana,
Chapter 58: Lucy,
Chapter 59: Diana,
Chapter 60: Nettie,
Chapter 61: Lucy,
Chapter 62: Nettie,
Chapter 63: Lucy,
Chapter 64: Lucy,
Also by Sally Hepworth,
About the Author,

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