At the beginning of the year, I curated a Slanted Spines reading list for 2020, designating a book for each month. The June pick is In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware, and this is my book review!
In a Dark Dark Wood is a story about a young woman named Nora who attends a bachelorette party in a cabin in—you guessed it!—a dark, dark wood. However, the bachelorette party is for her ex-best friend Clare, who she hasn’t spoken to in ten years. Unsure why she was invited because she wasn’t invited to the actual wedding, yet curious all the same, Nora accepts the invite. But during the weekend, various bizarre conversations and events occur, and if I say much more, it may ruin the suspense of reading the book! This is Ruth Ware’s debut novel, and she’s gone on to write many other thrillers such as The Turn of the Key and The Death of Mrs. Westaway.
When I chose this book, I had judged it based off the reviews on the cover, which was perhaps my first error, because of course only the best snippets of reviews will be printed on it. “Prepare to be scared… really scared!” Reese Witherspoon’s review warns. “Just try to guess how sinister this plot can get (hint: VERY),” a review from Marie Claire says. Others speak of this book’s suspense, thrills, and mystery. And to the unsuspecting reader, the cover is quite creepy and contains no information about the book’s premise, so I figured it was the sort of book that couldn’t give away any information lest it spoil the surprise. I don’t read a lot of horror, and the only noteworthy scary book I’ve read is Imaginary Friend by Stephen Chbosky (read my review here!).
So as I began reading, I was quite eager to find out what happens. The story opens with a teaser scene in which Nora is running and panicked, then the story backtracks to when she first receives the invitation to the bachelorette party. I knew that it would take some time at the beginning to set up the characters and the cabin scene, and I found myself hungrily reading the book.
However, by halfway through the book, I began feeling a little impatient. The story alternates between the past, in which the bachelorette party is occurring, and the present, where Nora is in a hospital struggling to remember what happened and why she’s there. But in both timelines, it takes a long time to reach any “real” action, and several theories were forming in my mind as I tried to solve the mystery along with Nora.
Unfortunately, when I finally reached the climax of the cabin’s events, I was underwhelmed. I found myself wondering disbelievingly, “That’s it?” I held on to the hope that perhaps I’d encounter a plot twist or two at the end, but as the story wrapped up, the events played out predictably and easily.
The book itself is not bad. It’s a solid story, and the writing is okay, but I was still disappointed by it. Reflecting on the promises of the cover, I realized that these bold reviews actually did a disservice to the story. My expectations were warped by what they claimed, so I thought I would be reading a psychological thriller or a terrifying event in a cabin. However, I was hardly frightened at all by the murder that occurs, and at no point was I surprised by the plot. I think that whoever designed this book cover and selected these reviews steered readers’ expectations in one direction, when it should have been marketed more as a mystery book. The book was suspenseful for sure, but it almost used suspense as a crutch to build intrigue with very little payoff. At the end, I felt annoyed—I had been strung along the whole time, and the ending wasn’t clever to me at all.
So, I do not recommend this book to those who are avid horror/thriller readers, because I think this audience would find it dull. However, I do recommend it for readers looking for a “gateway” book to ease into mystery and horror, or those who don’t necessarily like thrillers yet want to experiment with the genre more.
On Goodreads, I gave the book 3 stars because I think partly, the marketing team set Ware up for failure. The book was still not very strong on its own, but it wasn’t the most horrible book I’ve ever read, and I’d be willing to give Ware’s newer fiction a fair chance to impress me.
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Ruth Ware’s writing in this book is respectable. I think it was wise for her to set the story up with dual timelines because had she not, readers may not have been as intrigued to keep reading the story; Nora’s experience in the hospital certainly adds to the mystery, as she gradually recalls the events of the bachelorette party.
I think the writing is very easy to read; it’s the sort of writing I hardly noticed “was there” because it was channeling the story quite well. The writing was fine and not necessarily an issue for me.
One thing I didn’t know going into this book is that Ruth Ware is British, so after some brief confusion as to what a “hen night” is, I figured out it’s what they call “bachelorette party” overseas. It was funny to me that this book is entirely about a bachelorette party without ever using the word “bachelorette,” but I learned some interesting British lingo, such as that they call vegetarians “veggies.” Guess I’m a veggie!
There are six characters who stay at the cabin, and the story is told from Nora’s perspective. Four of the characters are strangers to her, and the other two Nora knows, but not too well.
I enjoyed the dialogue and the interactions between the characters. Ware does a good job of creating “awkward” scenarios that build tension, and I found most of the characters to be believable and all possibly suspicious. Nina was probably my favorite character because I found her most entertaining, and she was the closest to Nora. Tom was also interesting, although he was quite stereotypically the gay bougie friend.
SPOILER WARNING! Now, if you haven’t read this book and don’t want to see any spoiler information, I will be discussing spoilers in the next section, entitled How This Plot Could Have Been Better.
How This Plot Could Have Been Better
I mentioned earlier that as I read, several theories were swirling around in my brain as to how the story would end. Here are some of my ideas about how the plot could have been improved:
First of all, I felt there was so much lost opportunity with Nina. I appreciated that she was a good friend to Nora, but this friendship is exactly what gave her character major potential for a plot twist.
I think Ware may have meant for Nina to be a “red herring” because she is constantly making aggressive comments, such as, “Remember, I’m a doctor. I know at least 3 ways to kill you without leaving a trace,” which she writes in her email to Nora at the beginning (page 13). During their game of Never Have I Ever, Nina rather maliciously reminds the group that Clare’s fiancé is Nora’s ex-boyfriend James, and she has a tendency for playing pranks, such as when they use the Ouija board and she spells “tequila” (page 159). She shares a room with Nora and thus has the most access to her and her personal belongings.
When Nina visits Nora in the hospital, I thought it was going to be a trap. She insists on leaving her sweater with Nora, and even buys her a bag full of non-hospital clothes to wear. I expected there to be a murder weapon or some item planted on Nora to make her look guilty of a crime, which the police officer would discover and use against Nora. Then, when Nina mentions that Flo was staying at the same hotel as she was, and had attempted to commit suicide, I thought it may have been because Nina poisoned Flo and was making it appear as though it were a suicide, because she’s a doctor and admittedly has knowledge in that field.
When Nora wakes up in the present-timeline and realizes she’s in a hospital, I doubted the authenticity of the hospital. I wondered if it may be a sinister laboratory in which evil scientists or a serial killer organization was going to conduct experiments and torture Nora. I expected the friendly nurse to have a dark side beneath her sweet and nurturing facade, and I thought that the police officer was also an actor trying to manipulate Nora. This would have made the story bigger than the drama of the characters, introducing some cult-like evil organization.
There was a brief time when I thought Clare could have possibly been Nora’s evil alter ego, and that we may be reading a psychological thriller with an unreliable narrator. Especially because of Nora’s memory loss in the hospital, I thought that perhaps Clare didn’t even exist and that Nora was merely blind to her own “obsession” with Clare, or that she was using Clare as an excuse to be the confident version of her stuttering and shy self.
I also thought that Clare’s motivation for killing James is incredibly weak. She kills him because he doesn’t want to marry her—because of a lie she told ten years ago. Although it would have been a bit more straightforward, I think Clare should have killed James because he was still in love with Nora. Wouldn’t that have made more sense? James could have realized, “I still have feelings for Nora, and I regret my decisions,” and out of rage and hurt (rather than fear of being embarrassed to be broken up with), Clare kills him. Yet another missed opportunity.
Having left early, Melanie seemed suspicious to me. It was the perfect excuse to be exempted from guilt—she left to be with her newborn son and wasn’t even present for the murder! I considered that she may have secretly stuck around to commit some shady crimes, the rest of the group under the impression she was at home. However, this character never made another appearance.
Oh, Flo. That she turns out to be merely a crazed, obsessive friend was somewhat underwhelming for me. This was another character that I considered being an “alter ego”—for either Nora or Clare. Especially because Flo is described to mimic many of Clare’s fashion choices, I thought that perhaps she may have been a “side” of Clare, and that Clare was some “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” character. As Nora recalled the events, I thought she may eventually realize that she was misremembering Flo’s existence, and that the whole weekend, Clare was going back and forth acting out both Flo and Clare. Perhaps the hospital had given Nora drugs to misremember the story, and that everything we had read was her messed-up memory.
Or, Flo could have at least been more intelligent. The fact that she was just a sad, unstable girl was a bit pathetic. She could have been a brilliant, scheming villain merely acting as the “doting best friend” to make others question her true capabilities. I was disappointed that she died, as annoying as she was.
When Nora looks at Clare’s Facebook page, she sees that Clare’s profile picture has Tom in it. One of my theories was that Tom was Clare’s actual love interest, and that Clare had merely been lying to Nora the whole weekend to stir up her emotions. Nina, Melanie, Flo, and Tom could have been making up stories about Clare and James, when Tom was the person Clare was really in a relationship with! Many times, Nora feels confused because the James she remembers is much different than the James that Clare speaks about. But Clare could have been fooling Nora just to push her buttons and make her see less clearly, while Clare was actually in a relationship with Tom and her engagement to James was made-up.
In so many scenes, Nora mentions how the cabin—with its glass walls—seems like a “stage” to the forest. She feels unnerved thinking about the animals and eyes out there in the woods, peering into their well-lit cabin at night, and I thought that perhaps the whole bachelorette weekend could have been a creepy science experiment. Doctors could have been monitoring all the weekend’s interactions and occurrences, toying with the group’s minds and setting up situations that manipulated their feelings—such as the footsteps in the snow that Nora finds.
It also would have been cool if this book became super meta and Nora, at some point, overwhelmed by the amount of horrible stuff that could have occurred to her, suddenly realizes that she’s in the plot of her own horror story, much like realizing she’s in a dream. Nora herself is a horror story writer, and so the events in real life could be mimicking her fiction. After so many crazy things happen, she could use her knowledge of scary novels to outwit her opponents. This would have had to been executed very intelligently, but would have been very fun for the reader.
Perhaps Ware quite intentionally set up all these suspenseful clues to subvert our expectations and misdirect our attention from the obvious culprit(s), but in my opinion, it just seems like wasted opportunities and a dissatisfying conclusion.
Let me know what you thought of In a Dark, Dark Wood in the comments! Also tell me if I should just write a horror story myself, haha! After brainstorming my theories, I certainly feel inspired to create my own psychological thriller.
Next month’s Slanted Spines book is Queenie by Candace Carty-Williams, so pick up a copy of that for next month’s book review!