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Imperfect Women


Imperfect Women

From Araminta Hall, the author of OUR KIND OF CRUELTY, comes IMPERFECT WOMEN, a tautly plotted tale of domestic suspense centered on three women and the lies they have told and built up about one another.

Eleanor and her friend, Nancy, had been out to dinner, but now it is four in the morning and Nancy has not come home. Desperate with worry, her husband, Robert, calls Eleanor and asks her for the truth. Although Eleanor admits that Nancy has been seeing a man named David for at least a year, she is adamant that Nancy had been trying to end the affair for weeks and has not run off. Her claim is tragically confirmed when a white car arrives outside of Robert and Nancy’s home with the news that a body believed to be Nancy has been found bludgeoned to death.

"You’ll buy this one for the comparisons to Paula Hawkins, but you’ll remember it for the sharply observed and brilliantly explored observations on women and their various --- but always criticized --- roles in society."

Eleanor and the women’s other best friend, Mary, quickly compare notes on what they knew about Nancy and her lover. With the police embarking on a thorough investigation of Nancy’s correspondences and Robert's knowledge of the affair, Eleanor in particular feels her life crumbling, undulating with anxiety and fear. What happened to the three bright, eager young women who met at Oxford all those years ago, and how have they arrived at this moment --- with one tied to an abusive husband, another single and lonely, and the third lying dead under a bridge?

As Eleanor grapples with her grief, she becomes obsessed with learning the truth about who Nancy really was. At the same time, Mary becomes distracted by a sudden decline in her older husband Howard's health. Watching not only the investigation and public outcry about Nancy’s murder, but the way that Mary coddles and dotes on the man who has always mistreated her, Eleanor begins to wonder how much she really knows about either of her friends. And, as she embarks on her own bad choices with an ill-timed and poorly thought-out romance with Robert, her questioning turns against her when she realizes that she, too, has not always been honest with her friends --- and least of all herself.

As the mystery of Nancy’s death unfolds, Hall tracks the ways that the women have judged and misjudged one another over the years. Where she was once young and full of potential, each has strayed from the plan she set for herself all those years ago in Oxford. And even worse, each is intensely self-conscious about her lot in life --- especially when it comes to the watchful gazes of her friends. Eleanor, who works with nonprofits and is married to her career, is the “strong one,” the independent, careful one who doesn’t need a man. Mary, weighed down with three children and a petulant husband, is the mother and housewife; though her friends will tell you that there is no harder job than motherhood, they also look down on her for staying with Howard. And then there’s beautiful, rich and cultured Nancy, the only one of them who appears to have it all and yet cannot seem to feel happiness, using reckless acts to buoy her self-esteem and feelings of joy.

The title of Hall’s latest is certainly apt: neither of the three women at the center of IMPERFECT WOMEN would ever be considered perfect. And yet the greatest strength of the book is how perfectly imperfect each of them is; all three are wholly realized, believably complicated and layered, and self-conscious without being self-absorbed. Though Eleanor, Nancy and Mary are all obsessed with the opinions of one another, Hall uses their microcosm to unpack the multiple pressures, impossible expectations and horrible judgments that women face every day in society, at work and in their relationships.

As Hall writes, “Women...carry guilt and responsibility like a second skin, so much so it weighs them down and stops them from ever achieving quite everything they should…. Madness, neurosis, heightened emotions, all are such easy monikers to apply to women…” And indeed, if the women of IMPERFECT WOMEN are, well, imperfect, it is the men who are truly, wholly flawed. Hall does not disparage men or dispute the existence of good men in her book, but she certainly does remind us that even as women are harmed emotionally and physically every day, men almost always have a way out of their guilt for it.

Readers who enjoyed OUR KIND OF CRUELTY will be delighted to see that Hall has maintained her talent for dark characterizations and vivid descriptions of violent, obsessive love, but this is not quite the same psychological thriller. IMPERFECT WOMEN is much more nuanced and intellectual; while a murder has been committed, this is not a jump-scare-filled or particularly shocking suspense novel (though there is a satisfying murder mystery simmering in the background at all times). The thrills here are much more thought-provoking and insightful.

You’ll buy this one for the comparisons to Paula Hawkins, but you’ll remember it for the sharply observed and brilliantly explored observations on women and their various --- but always criticized --- roles in society.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on August 28, 2020

Imperfect Women
by Araminta Hall