Mini Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

About mini reviews:

Maybe you’re not an audio book person, or maybe you are. I provide mini reviews of audio books and give a recommendation on the format. Was this book improved by a voice actor? Would a physical copy have been better? Perhaps they complement each other? Read on. . .

Having listened to Imogen Church read The Woman in Cabin 10, I was excited to see her name again. Church speaks clearly and convincingly pulls off various accents. The Turn of the Key is about a nanny from England who travels to Scotland to watch the children of very busy parents, also from England. The girls are weird, the house makes noises like someone is creeping around in the attic just above the nanny’s bed, and we start seeing the connections to The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. Although the rich parents bought an old house in an isolated location, no one is hampered by lack of Wi-Fi or cell phone reception. In fact, the technology is overwhelming, the house being converted into a smart house, where everything from the lights and temperature, to the door locks and shower settings are all connected to an app.

I was struck by the way the house is like a Frankenstein’s monster in that the old and new are sewn together to make this weird house that doesn’t quite work but is hideously beautiful. The owners are architects, so of course they made changes to the old house when they bought it, adding new sections and modern design elements. Each section feels like it must get along with whatever it’s attached to.

Ware’s book is a mystery and thriller, making readers ask what is producing the scary noises, why are the children so weird, and is the father a pervert. It’s all framed by the nanny in prison writing to her lawyer. We know one of the children in her charge is dead (which one??), and clearly she’s incarcerated for murder, though she claims she’s innocent. It’s hard to accept that the entire novel is meant to be a letter to a lawyer, given that paper and writing utensils are not free in prison, and I can’t imagine lawyers read letters the size of books.

Ware drops clues all over the place and tromps along at a good pace, until I hit discs 8 and 9 — out of 10. Ware does her thing, just like In A Dark, Dark Wood, and mashes the brakes, bringing the plot to a crawl. I wanted to quit. The nanny is the first-person narrator, and she internally asks the dumbest questions — multiple at a time — to speculate what is going on. “Could it be X? No, X was in X’s room. What if Y was creeping in? Y gives me a bad feeling. But what would Y’s motive be??” Lady, let the reader ask the questions. But, I carried on and was surprised by the ending, which is both more horrible and less scary that I thought it would be.

With Imogen Church at the mic giving characters unique voices and correct accents, I’ve no doubt that listening to the audiobook is the best way to engage with Ruth Ware’s work.

50 comments

  1. I read it, rather than listened, and suspect you might be right. I got bored, flipped to the back for the solution, and then didn’t bother with the rest of the middle.

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    • Ware has this thing where her words on the page look flat, but Imogen Church, the audiobook narrator, really adds emotional depth to her reading, sort of performing the main character (who is always a first-person female narrator) instead of simply reading.

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  2. hahaha i loved reading this, your review was so funny. I didn’t notice her asking the questions, but you’re right, when you’re reading the book, it’s super annoying for the protagonist to be asking them! Sadly, the pervert is hard to avoid in so many books these days (and reality, it seems).

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  3. Sounds like audio is the right format for this story. I’m still not entirely convinced that I want to give it a try. Perhaps, I should try The Woman in Cabin 10 instead?

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    • What kind of thriller novel do you enjoy? They’re all a bit different. The Woman in Cabin 10 is more about anxiety and using medication to treat it, which leads to people questioning the logic and truth of what the person with anxiety says. Another Ware novel called In a Dark, Dark Wood is more about high school relationships and how they change when those friends become adults.

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  4. What kind of thriller? That is a big question! I actually wrote a post about it. Ideally, I like a page turner with strong, surprising plot and complex and believable characters. Not much to ask for? Unfortunately, I often get disappointed by modern crime thrillers. Probably, I should study some of the reviews on Goodreads for Ware’s different books. I would like to try one of them, since everyone speaks highly of her.

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  5. “Both more horrible and less scary than I thought it would be” is exactly what I enjoyed about this one. I’m glad the audio worked so well for you! It is interesting that you see the narrator asking questions as an element that slows the story down- I definitely tend to pick up the pace at the end of a Ware novel, though maybe I have the impression of the story speeding up just because it’s easier to read through those parts faster, to get at what’s really going on between the questions? Hmm. In any case, I always appreciate her sense of atmosphere- I found the Frankenhouse so interesting to read about, though I thought I would find it ugly and frustrating in person!

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    • Yeah, it’s hard to picture how the house would go together, even if talented architects were designing it. I don’t mind questions so much as I get tired of the narrator asking so many questions right in a row. It felt like notes that the author would write to herself to figure out her plotting.

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  6. Do you find creepy books to be more or less creepy in audio version? Every review I’ve read of this one reminds me of an old Isaac Asimov (I think) story where a house takes such good care of itself that when the owner dies it just cleans up the corpse and continues on.

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  7. Re Karissa’s comment, I have a Robert Sheckley story – Can You Feel it when I do this? – where the housewife and the vacuum cleaner end up having sex (I’m not sure Asimov would go that far). But to get back to the review, I read lots of American crime/thriller fiction on audiobook, I’m going to have to take more notice of the reader. I don’t remember reading this or any other of Ware’s titles, but I’ll look out for them.

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    • No, he never did, but it would have been magnificent if he had, putting all the current written pornography to utter shame. I read that story in High School in the early seventies, amazingly. It’s a chapter from the Martian Chronicles.

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    • I haven’t read The Lying Game (weirdly, I’d not even heard of the title before), but I wonder if Ware suffers from the same issues: starting at the end and mixing past and present at a good clip before finally dragging her heels and making the book slow down too much before the Big Reveal.

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  8. Good to know about the audio! Narration is really important to me. I’ve been wanting to try Ware for awhile so I think I’ll give this a shot. Great review!

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    • I haven’t read The Death of Mrs. Westaway. I’ve read three Ware novels, and all three had the same issue for me: a really sluggish part that prevents the conclusion from coming. I get being a tease, but she adds way too much slow down to the point where I question if I want to put the book down. My husband felt the same way about all three novels. I think I’ll try more Sarah Pinborough in the future when I’m thinking I should try another thriller.

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  9. I swear, this woman is so prolific! I feel like every month someone is reviewing a Ware book I’ve never heard of. The Turn of the Key included. I haven’t read The Turn of the Screw, nor do I know what it is about. Is this an homage? Would readers benefit from knowing James’s book going into this?

    I love the name Imogen Chruch. Beautiful! I’m glad that Ware has a consistently wonderful narrator.

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    • The Turn of the Screw is a classic novella that people will likely encounter in high school or college. It’s a story about a nanny whose charges insist they see ghosts. I find it a bit dry, but I know other folks really enjoy it. Ware’s novel is based on that concept — nanny/ghosts — so you really don’t need to read James before you read Ware. I know you listen to audiobooks, so this one might be a good pick for you!

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    • I think my favorite out of the ones I read was The Turn of the Key simply because I couldn’t figure out what was going on yet felt tense about the noises the character hears, and it’s really easy to hate the children she’s watching, which is also a creepy feeling.

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  10. Of the four Ware books I’ve read, this was my least favorite by far. I was just irritated by the whole premise – if the offer SOUNDS TOO GOOD to be true, it probably is. My favorite was The Death of Mrs. Westaway. It felt like a throwback/homage to a Christie-style mystery.
    The only one I have yet to read is The Lying Game.

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  11. ****Spoilers Below****

    You’re right about the paper, though I assume she’s writing in a cramp style right to the edges so it’s far fewer pages than the novel is. But the ending is rushed and incomplete. There’s no explanation of why the victim did not scream while falling, nor protect her head with her hands, as this implies that the girl was knocked out and thrown unconscious through the window. We aren’t told anything about the trial results and the “It doesn’t matter” by the narrator (the man at the end of the novel: his reading the letters and his conversation at the end of the book is the entire book) strongly implies that both the nanny and the sister are dead: one murdered in prison after being convicted for a crime she didn’t commit and the other likely from suicide at some time after from guilt over causing two deaths. Otherwise the discovery of the last letter would be very important for either of these victims, but it didn’t matter at that point. By the way, my analysis suggested that the girl died by accident trying to open the closed attic window, but nobody looked into that before the trial. I’m also surprised at many comments in these forums that the nanny should sacrifice her life to avoid hurting the sister: the upper class sister wouldn’t be charged, needs major counselling and her discomfort isn’t worth destroying the life of a young woman just because that woman is a lower-class bastard. Nor why people wouldn’t think that the convicted nanny wouldn’t fight back and try to prove her innocence: they seem to assume that the nanny should just give up. There’s an amazing sequel here but it will not be written.

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    • It’s been long ago enough since I read this book that I’m afraid I won’t be able to respond to your comment with the full knowledge that it deserves! I hadn’t thought of the nanny or the sister being dead at the end of the book — I can’t tell you why this many years later, but I don’t recall thinking that at the end. Are there other thrillers you’ve read and enjoyed lately? I recommend everyone to Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough: https://grabthelapels.com/2017/05/22/her-eyes/

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      • I’ll elaborate (spoilers ahead).
        At least one of the two men discussing what to do with the letters hidden by Rachel has read Ellie’s confession. He’s the narrator so what he hasn’t read is not in the novel, therefore he has read her letter. Yet he then says that it doesn’t matter. How could a confession fail to change anything?
        If Ellie had confessed before the trial, Rachel would have been released straight from the prison and wouldn’t have had to hide the letters. She could have taken them with her and everybody would already know what Ellie’s letter had said.
        If Ellie had confessed during the trial, that should have been a major point of conversation between the two men, but not a word was mentioned about any sister’s confession during that well-known trial.

        The only other option for people finding out about Ellie’s confession would still have no importance is because Rachel is already dead when the letters were found: it doesn’t matter now. Many people in other discussion groups have also reached this conclusion.
        Also, if Rachel were alive, why didn’t the men think of asking her whether she wanted them back (in case she wanted to write about her experience).

        Even if Rachel were found innocent, her career as a nanny/daycare worker is destroyed: nobody would want someone who had lost a child during her care, so she’s back to minimum wage. So she suffers regardless. She can’t write a book about it if she were found innocent because that’s breach of confidentiality with the Elincourt’s (by the way, if she were found guilty and later found innocent, she WOULD be able to write about it because the Elincourt’s failed to support her innocence).
        And I don’t think that Sandra would be able to afford her, or would even want her as a nanny after Maddie’s death (as Sandra probably blames Rachel for not finding out about Maddie’s climbing of the walls).
        It also seems that Rachel had lost Rowen’s friendship and whatever hope of a relationship with her mother because they apparently never contacted her while she was awaiting trial.

        As for thrillers, I liked The Guest List and The Woman in the Window.

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        • I don’t believe I read many discussions of this book online, but I can see how I would have been argumentative in a book club, had I read this novel with a book club. My first foray into Ware was actually The Woman in Cabin 10, chosen by a book club that unfortunately had so little say about the novel!

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          • I’m not really part of the thriller market. I find the “one reveal now, one reveal later” approach a bit fake in some of them. I was disgusted with the hero of “Woman on a Plane” abandoning the woman to the law’s blind fury when she really was defending her friend. I found Ruth’s Dark Dark Night OK, though the motive seemed a bit weak.
            But my love is “imaginative”, science fiction and well thought-out fantasy. I belong to an imaginative writer’s group and have had some short stories published, but my wife (we’re retired, by the way) got into thrillers from our neighbour next door (‘neighbour is Canadian spelling, stop flagging it, you American software!) and I read a good number of them just to broaden my writing experience.
            I just feel that Rachel’s story was “aborted”, because there’s an amazing potential story in there about how she survived several years of prison and was able to prove her innocence, while the other Elincourt females have their own dark time to triumphantly overcome, but every commenter seems to think that Rachel should just give up. No, she shouldn’t. And just because the narrator in the book seems to believe that she’s dead doesn’t mean she did succumb to whatever happened to her, either. I don’t believe she’d commit suicide because of three things:
            People with a somewhat tough childhood tend to be stubborn and not willing to give up.
            The housekeeper might have kept writing to her, giving her support.
            There was always a chance that Ellie would confess, especially if she finds out that she wouldn’t be jailed (and I still think she failed to kill Maddie, who would have been holding onto the vines with one hand).
            But that requires writing another novel and publishers aren’t keen on sequels.

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            • I never thought about the fact that Rachel’s childhood would be an indicator of how well she’d survive prison. You’re right, though; she likely would not give up.

              I really enjoyed your comment about American software and had a good laugh! There are many Canadians who follow this blog, and I read their blogs, too.

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  12. It’s a shame because there’s a story that should be told (look up women in western prisons: things are getting worse) and an issue that should be brought up and a stubbornly resistant Rachel would have been the perfect vessel: she made a career for herself by herself, she succeeded in that career and what happened to her was not earned by what she had done wrong: padding her resume. And with all the garbage going on today, we don’t need another depressing, all hope is gone, story.
    I can figure out what really happened (no, Ellie didn’t kill her sister, because her sister would have screamed, so she was already holding onto the vine when Ellie pushed her and never fell), what likely would have happened to the Elincourt girls (very painful, but eventually successful and better people than when they started), and how Rachel would survive and eventually win over the Prison staff, and then how the proof of what really happened (accidental death) was discovered. But it’s not my story nor my characters, so that’s the end of it. And I had really started to care for Rachel before that awful ending, so what’s the morale: don’t care about strangers? By the way, I’m an old Boomer, so I’m talking with 67 years behind me.

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    • Did you read this novel recently? You’re quite passionate about it, and I’ve enjoyed reading your comments. I hope you follow my blog (you can sign up to receive an email when I post) and check out other reviews, too.

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  13. I did read it this year, about a year after everybody else, it seems. What bothered me was the abruptness and the uncertainty of the finish. If you write a mystery and make the readers figure out the ending, you’re basically inviting a mass of people with different backgrounds to find all of your mistakes. Nobody can write the flawless thriller-mystery, so there will be mistakes.
    But the implication that the letters don’t matter is very grim and the fact that nobody mentions whether Rachel won is also noticeable. The judgement is important, unless it ends up being a tragic mistake. For example, what if the man knows it doesn’t matter because Ellie confessed in a recording or a letter and then killed herself after hearing that Rachel was murdered in prison (note that, two years after Maddie’s death, Ellie would know enough to write a letter). In that case, the man might not want to mention it explicitly and would use wording like the book had.
    I’m just not used to authors killing their protagonists at the end of the novel. It certainly wasn’t a deserved death as all Rachel really did was inflate her resume: Rowan wouldn’t have suffered anything, not even her reputation. Who gets brutalized and killed for faking on a resume?
    When I was a young man, the world was constantly fearful of a nuclear war, environmental collapse, economic collapse because of an energy shortage, or social collapse because of a race war. Then the Cold War ended and things were looking better. We were succeeding. Then it all went wrong, with the wealthy becoming super-wealthy, the Middle Class dying out and country after country falling into dictatorship and fanaticism while the environment fails, at least according to the media. We conquered the moon voyage and then gave up on it. We made progress in racial equality, and forgot to tell the police. We bragged about our forensic science advances but experts estimate that one out of every twenty convicts are wrongly convicted: that’s a hell of a lot of Rachel’s when you consider how many women the Western World convict every year. When I was a young boomer, all of those problems mattered. In my aged opinion, I guess none of it matters anymore.
    So I’m giving up reading thrillers. Ruth can write what she wants, but I won’t read her work or the work of her fellow writers. The fictional Rachel is dead, but there were many real women who had (and will have) the same fate and the world won’t fix that. At least science fiction stays optimistic. Good bye, it was nice talking to you and I hope your website becomes very popular.

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