Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Title: The Turn of the Key
Author: Ruth Ware
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.

Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unravelling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant.

It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

Full of spellbinding menace and told in Ruth Ware’s signature suspenseful style, The Turn of the Key is an unputdownable thriller from the Agatha Christie of our time.

The Turn of the Key is my book group’s pick for November, and I suppose I’m glad to have been “forced” to read it. I’ve been hearing about this book and author Ruth Ware for a while now, so it’s good to know what all the fuss is about!

From the start, we know that there’s something off about the main character. We meet Rowan as she reaches out by letter to a lawyer she’s heard about, one who might be able to turn around her hopeless case. Rowan is in prison, awaiting trial for murdering a child left in her care. And while Rowan admits that she’s done plenty wrong, she insists that she didn’t kill the child.

From here, she relates her strange story, starting with the advertisement for a nanny. A wealthy couple is offering a huge salary for a live-in nanny for their four children at their Scottish estate. To Rowan, this is simply too good to be true. The money involves a huge step up for her, she’s ready for a change, and as we later learn, she has other reasons for wanting the position too.

It’s a weird set-up. The house is a huge, beautiful old Victorian, but the back half has been totally converted into a sleek, glass-walled modern structure. The estate encompasses acres of woods and trails that the children are free to roam about unattended. The children range from toddler to teen, and seem like a handful, but Rowan is enchanted.

Less enchanting is the smart-house design. Everything is run via an app called Happy, that controls all lights, locks and unlocks doors, interfaces with phone calls, replenishes the grocery list, plays music and audiobooks, and so much more. There are cameras everywhere. Creepy!

The parents, Sandra and Bill, are strangely hands-off, to say the least. Upon hiring Rowan, they depart on a business trip the very next day. Suddenly, Rowan is left alone with children who don’t know her (and seem very hostile), a house she doesn’t know how to operate, and only a thick binder left behind by Sandra to offer her instructions on the daily routines and needs of the children.

There are so many red flags that honestly, if I were in Rowan’s shoes, I’d be heading for the hills. Being left alone with children I’ve just met for weeks? Living in an isolated old house? The creaky floors and strange noises? The scary walled garden? The impossible-to-figure-out house app and Sandra’s remote surveillance? No thank you very much.

Still, we also suspect early on that Rowan has secrets. What was her real reason for wanting this job? Why does she hesitate when someone calls her by name? Why does she hide her necklace and just seem so damned awkward all the time?

I had a lot of guesses about Rowan’s secrets, but I was wrong. I was slightly more on target with some of my guesses about the murder — I mean, I got that wrong too, but I figured out some of the “hows” at least!

The ending is pretty abrupt and perhaps a little manipulative, and there’s an ambiguous line thrown in right before the end that has me wondering what happened to Rowan after she finished telling her story.

Overall, I was only partially engaged; hence my 3-star rating. Granted, I’m not a thriller fan in general, so take my responses with a grain of salt. Still, I thought there was something stilted about the set-up, and felt that Rowan’s actions didn’t make enough sense going along. She displays a temper toward the children that made me go in some really dark directions which turned out not to be true — which is a relief, but then why such strong displays of anger? For a childcare professional, Rowan’s anger issues seem really inappropriate and probably should disqualify her from working with children.

Also, it didn’t feel rational to me that a person would show up and take this job in the first place with no adjustment period, and the smart-house aspects are creepy without really adding to the plot. Likewise, the awful garden is in the mix as a danger sign and huge clue… except in the end, it doesn’t really have anything to do with what’s going on, except for being yet one more thing to freak out the main character.

Rowan’s letters from prison make her sound pretty unhinged, so learning that she’s not as unreliable a narrator as we’re led to believe makes me feel like I was being handled, rather than tricked by a clever story.

I don’t know. I was engaged and needed to see how it all turned out, but never particularly connected to any of the characters or cared about them as individuals — not even the children, who didn’t seem particularly realistic.

So yeah, just a 3-star read for me. *Shrug*. Kind of disappointing, considering that I have another book by this author on my shelf. Here’s hoping I have better luck with the next one!

PS – I keep having to stop myself from referring to this book as The Turn of the Screw… and I assume that’s an intentional nod to the classic. New nanny, strange and potentially haunted house, weird children… although the Henry James version doesn’t include invasive smart devices and apps!