book review: The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

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THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware
★★☆☆☆
Gallery/Scout Press, 2016

I’m always stunned when I end up disliking a thriller this much, because I never go into them with particularly high expectations. If it can provide me with some suspense and some fun escapism for a few hours, I’m pretty easy to please. Unfortunately, The Woman in Cabin 10 slid under my relatively low bar.

This book was boring. I don’t say that a lot. I read a lot of character-driven literary fiction, and not a whole lot of what I read is terribly plot-heavy. I don’t need consistently high stakes or action packed adventure to hold my interest. But this was boring. Lo Blacklock is a travel journalist who goes on a luxury cruise, and while she’s on the boat, she believes she witnesses a murder. The majority of this book is then Lo just attempting to convince people of what she saw, and it gets old pretty fast.

This book also required a positively excessive amount of suspension of disbelief. Characters consistently did not act like real people, or else their motives, Lo’s in particular, made zero sense. An early example of this is when Lo’s long-time boyfriend, Judah, asks her to move in with him. Until this point in the book, Lo had essentially been waxing eloquent for thirty pages about how much she loves him, and then when he poses this question, she completely freaks out and they get into a fight. And there are plenty of reasons why someone wouldn’t want to move in with their partner, even if they’re in love, but are any of these reasons actually explored? Not particularly. Their argument is a pretty transparent plot device to drive a wedge into their relationship before Lo embarks on her cruise. Also, at the very beginning of this book, Lo’s apartment is burgled while she’s inside, an event that was supposedly terrifying and which had a pretty huge effect on her for the rest of the novel, but while we’re told over and over again just how traumatic and upsetting this was for Lo, I never really felt it. There’s this constant disconnect between her actions and what she’s relaying (in first person) to the reader. ‘I need to snap out of this,’ she muses frequently, without ever detailing what THIS actually is.

Anyway, back to the boat. Ruth Ware was clearly attempting an Agatha Christie-esque locked door mystery, but where she failed was the sheer amount of interchangeable characters. First of all, while there are only ten cabins, you’d think that that would limit the number of suspects to ten, right? Incorrect – there are so many crew members on this boat I couldn’t even begin to keep track of them. And even of the aforementioned ten guests, only about three of them had any sort of personality. The rest just bled together. I figured out pretty early on in this book that I wasn’t going to care about the whodunnit reveal, because these were some of the least interesting characters I have ever encountered.

There are also some pretty gargantuan leaps of logic on a fairly regular basis. For example. Lo thinks she sees a woman get thrown overboard; she tells the security guard about a woman in that room lending her some mascara earlier that day, and the security guard and Lo both conclude that the ONLY possible person who could have been thrown overboard is that particular woman – he doesn’t even bother taking inventory of all the passengers and crew members?? In what universe does this make sense??

It finally, finally picked up toward the end – even though there weirdly was not much of a climax to this book, the final five or six chapters do provide a bit of long-overdue excitement. But by this point I really didn’t care what happened either way.

But my biggest problem with The Woman in Cabin 10 was actually its treatment of mental illness, which, interestingly, I’ve seen praised by a lot of reviewers. And look, I get it. I think this book thinks it’s conveying a pro-medication message, and it’s easy to be distracted by its good intentions and not examine just how offensive these words actually are. (For the record, I have been taking anxiety medication for over five years, which I’m only disclosing to let you guys know that this is something I care a lot about on a personal level as well as an academic one.)

“There’s no reason, on paper at least, why I need these pills to get through life. I had a great childhood, loving parents, the whole package. I wasn’t beaten, abused, or expected to get nothing by As. I had nothing but love and support, but that wasn’t enough somehow.”

I’m tired of even well-meaning narratives feeding into this idea that depression needs to be justified. You’re allowed to be depressed without having had a shitty childhood. And yes, you could argue that that’s exactly what Ruth Ware is saying here, but this entire book bends over backwards to remind us how normal Lo is, and isn’t it weird how someone so normalneeds to take medication?? Sorry, but if her intention is to normalize medication, she’s failing miserably. I felt condescended to by the fact that every time meds were brought up in this book, there was this aura of othernessabout them – in fact, early on in this book, we find out that Lo is taking medication for something, but we don’t know what, and it isn’t until her sanity is being called into question that another character reveals (in hushed tones, of course) that Lo is taking meds for… dun dun dun… depression. Is it too much to ask that a character can just take depression or anxiety medication without there being a whole song and dance about it??

“Cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, psychotherapy – none of it really worked in the way that the pills did. Lissie says she finds the notion of chemically rebalancing your mood scary, she says it’s the idea idea of taking something that could alter how she really is. But I don’t see it that way; for me it’s like wearing makeup – not a disguise, but a way of making myself more how I really am, less raw. The best me I can be.”

And then there’s this. Where do I even begin with this. Wearing makeup isn’t empowering or feminist. There is a social and historical precedent that women are expected to wear makeup in order to be taken seriously, in order to succeed at our careers that should have nothing at all to do with appearance. It’s one thing to enjoy wearing makeup on an individual level, but it’s important to acknowledge just how messed up it is that women are fed this idea from an early age that we aren’t our best selves until we paint our faces on. (I don’t want to derail this review too badly, so here is a great article that goes into this in more depth. And this tumblr post, while brief, pretty much sums up my feelings exactly.)

And look, I don’t care if this character likes wearing mascara. But Ruth Ware drawing a comparison between makeup (an artificial standard of beauty that forces unhealthy expectations onto young women) and medication (something that actually saves lives) is offensive, and counterproductive to whatever point she was trying to make. You’re really going to try to frame your narrative as progressive by asserting that it’s okay to take medication for mental illness, and in that same breath feed into this false makeup = empowerment narrative?

Basically, this book dropped every ball it was trying to juggle. The plot was weak, the characters were weaker, and the treatment of Lo’s mental illness would have been laughable if I weren’t so offended by it. The only reason this is getting 2 stars instead of 1 is that 1-star books require a certain passionate hatred that this book didn’t inspire in me. It mostly held my interest and offered a few surprises, but on the whole I just wanted it to end.