‘The Heiress’ a modern-day thriller with parallels to ‘Wuthering Heights’

Alabama author Rachel Hawkins’ latest thriller set in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
"The Heiress" by Rachel Hawkins
Courtesy of St. Martin's Press/John Hawkins

Credit: St. Martin's Press/John Hawkins

Credit: St. Martin's Press/John Hawkins

"The Heiress" by Rachel Hawkins Courtesy of St. Martin's Press/John Hawkins

Ruby “Kill-more” McTavish is a North Carolina lumber heiress who was famously kidnapped as a child in 1943. She was returned months later and went on to grow up and bury four husbands before her own death, bequeathing her estate to her adopted son, who is forced to battle their entitled relatives for Ruby’s multi-million-dollar riches. So begins the intricate setup for Alabama author Rachel Hawkins’ latest domestic thriller “The Heiress,” a compulsively readable dive into the ugly ways people manipulate and mistreat each other to maintain power.

Fans of Emily Brontë's “Wuthering Heights” will be drawn into the gothic setting of the iconic McTavish home. Nestled on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, the Ashby House is a “fortress on a mountain made of thick gray stone and tall windows, surrounded by trees on three sides and behind the house, nothing but treetops and clouds and sky.” In disrepair and seemingly haunted, it provides a spooky environment for the McTavish heirs to duke out their legacy woes.

Ruby’s son Camden is the mansion’s owner who, after his mother’s death, turned his back on the family a decade ago, leaving a cesspool of festering wounds and disturbing memories in his wake. He was content to ignore them while maintaining legal ownership of not just Ashby House but much of the town of Tavistock, a “once sleepy hamlet transformed by the power of the McTavish fortune.” But shortly after his cousin Howell’s death, Camden is forced to return to Ashby House with his devoted wife Jules to untangle the complicated conditions of Ruby’s will that keep him tethered to his estranged family.

Setting isn’t the only parallel “The Heiress” shares with “Wuthering Heights” as a cast of despicable characters emerges from the mist, save for one moral beacon — the housekeeper.

Ruby’s sister Nelle is convinced the child who returned to Tavistock after being kidnapped wasn’t actually Ruby. And ever since Ruby brought home Camden, a 3-year-old orphan, Aunt Nelle has despised him, believing Ashby House is rightfully hers. Her son Howell and his children, all raised with McTavish privilege, will stop at nothing to disprove “the interloper” Camden’s claim.

Hawkins shifts between a variety of perspectives as the multiple threads of her mystery unravel. Camden and Jules alternate as present-day narrators hinting they may not be as innocent as originally depicted. Ruby’s cunning and sardonic character takes center stage in an epistolary reveal of letters written before her death confessing a lifetime of contemptible sins. The primary question driving the narrative forward emerges from Ruby’s point of view. How awful was she to Camden? And what did he do as retribution?

The questionable narrators and the grandiose ravings of a dead woman are anchored firmly in reality by occasional news reports — a handful from the Atlanta Constitution — that chronicle the McTavish family’s milestones over the decades. They contribute momentum to this propulsive page turner that delivers more than a few twists.

Howell’s children Libby and Ben are blatant villains who are easy to dislike. Libby is an influencer who starts companies and closes them when she loses interest. From her gourmet cupcake shop to her interior design company to her clothing boutique in downtown Tavistock, Libby’s only concern is maintaining her status. Her ego has made it remarkably easy for Jules, who was raised in a trailer park, to cyberstalk Libby throughout her 10-year marriage to Camden. The two women face off over Camden’s inheritance as well as their class differences.

Ben is a lawyer who specializes in estate law with the goal to discredit Camden’s claim on the McTavish fortune. But instead of working, Ben spends the bulk of his days hiking. Both men believe their birthright guarantees their social prominence, and they have developed nasty personalities to assert their sense of importance. But does Ben have a previous relationship with Jules that Camden knows nothing about?

It doesn’t take long for Camden to feel the stirring of responsibility as he reacquaints himself with Tavistock and encounters shuttered downtown storefronts. Meanwhile, Jules doesn’t understand why they can’t kick out his family and take possession of Ashby House instead of returning to their humble existence in the Pacific Northwest.

Red herrings abound as dozens of plot threads are woven together to form the foundation of this story. A few details conflict, however, and Hawkins never circles back around to clarify her intention. For example, Camden states in the beginning that he was an orphan adopted from foster care at age 3, but his origin story is at odds with the book’s conclusion, and the reason for the inconsistency isn’t addressed.

Another incident concerns Ruby’s remains. Nelle questions her sister’s identity and the topic of DNA testing is debated. Camden indicates Ruby was cremated in the beginning of the story, yet at the end exhuming her body is referenced, again with no explanation. These unresolved incidents leave a residue of confusion and an air of missed opportunities.

The threads Rachel Hawkins does tie together coalesce to address two main questions. Is the bad behavior of some ancestors counterbalanced by the good of others? And should good people who do bad things always be punished? “The Heiress” ends with some thought-provoking answers in this compelling whodunit.


FICTION

“The Heiress”

by Rachel Hawkins

St. Martin’s Press, 304 pages, $29

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