Araminta Hall

Araminta Hall is a British novelist whose first thriller, ''Our Kind of Cruelty,'' was a chilling story about a man obsessed with his ex-girlfriend - how complicated their lives are -

The Faustian bargains they make when they get married and raise children, or not; the complicated nature of their friendships; how hard they are on one another and themselves.

As unkind as the three main characters of Araminta Hall's ''Imperfect Women'' can be to one another - envious, judgmental, competitive and spiteful - their internecine meanness is nothing like the brutality of self-laceration.

As one hisses to herself : ''You're no better than the ugly sisters trying to squeeze their feet into the  glass slipper, trying to take what isn't yours''

The three main characters - Eleanor, Nancy and Mary - have been best friends since the day they met during the first week at Oxford.

Now they're grown and their lives have spun in varied directions, as lives tend to, throwing into relief the differences in the differences in their financial, professional and romantic fortunes.

Two are married and have children; one isn't and doesn't. One has a great job; the others don't. All are filled with regrets of broken dreams and paths not taken and envy at what their friends apparently have.

Not one is entirely happy at her choices, with her own particular approach to the classic work-life balance conundrum. [Does anyone ever solve that problem?] All try to be good people and none really succeed.

Death comes quickly in the story when Nancy's battered corpse is found by the side of the road early one morning. It is a horrible shock. Nancy was the enchanted princess of the trio, with beauty, charm, wit, an attractive husband, plenty of money.

Even in death, one of her friend says, she ''had more influence than most people did when they lived.''

''Who wouldn't want to kill someone like that?

Everyone is a suspect. There's Nancy's secret lover, whom she was apparently planning to leave on account of his excessive clinginess and irritating self-regard. [We won't learn his identity till later].

And there are, of course, her best friends : jealous, never-married Eleanor - who fancied Robert first, but who never stood a chance with him while Nancy was alive - and mousy Mary, a martyr to her own cruel and overbearing husband and her demanding children. 

Each women gets her own section in the book, which takes place in three time frames, when the murder is discovered, [Eleanor]; the period just before [Nancy]; and what happens later [Mary]. Coming after Eleanor's account, Nancy's extended flashback before her death is a revolution.

''Imperfect Women'' is not a conventional detective story, but an investigation into character and motivation. The real mysteries concern love, friendship, obligation, the disappointments that come with the passage of time and the mysteries of other people's hearts - as well as your own.

''It will always be difficult for a man to understand what women mean to each other,'' Nancy says at one point.

''None of them,'' she observes, thinking about herself and her friends, ''had really become what they imagined for themselves when they used to sit up into early mornings discussing what they would do with their lives.''

Nancy's death, as shocking and unfortunate as it is, turns out to be precursor to the real story here, a long tease for the twist Hall saves for the end of this surprising book.

After all that has happened, it feels like poetic justice.

The World Students Society thanks review author Sarah Lyall.


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