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What Would You Do: The Drowning Woman by Robyn Harding

Brook and Sarah discuss the 2023 release The Drowning Woman by Robyn Harding and what they would do in the main character’s situation.


The Drowning Woman (2023) Robyn Harding

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This transcript is generated by a computer and there may be some mis-spellings and strange punctuation. We try to catch these before posting, but some things slip through.

SarahWelcome to Clued in Mystery. I’m Sarah.
BrookAnd I’m Brook and we both love mystery.
SarahHi Brook.
BrookHi Sarah. Today is another “what would you do?” episode. And if you’re a subscriber to our semi-monthly newsletter, you already knew this and maybe you prepared by reading the book so that you’d be able to enjoy the podcast even more. So if this is something you’d like to know what’s coming up on the show, make sure you join our newsletter.
SarahAnd that’s right, Brook. So today we are talking about The Drowning Woman by Robyn Harding and it was published in 2023. I think this is the first time that we’re doing a “what would you do?” book that was relatively recently published.
SarahBefore I jump in I will just offer a little spoiler warning. We will get into a lot of detail about this book and there is lots of description of domestic abuse in this book and I’m sure our conversation will cover that a little bit as well. When the book opens we meet Lee who lives in her car in Seattle. Lee is on the run from unsavory investors in her failed New York restaurant and cut off from her family after trying to blackmail her future brother-in-law. She has to learn how to survive and she defends herself and her few belongings from a thief. She’s unharmed but loses much of the money she’s been saving for a rental deposit instead of settling in her car for the night in a shopping center parking lot, she drives to a wealthy neighborhood where she thinks she will feel safer. After a fitful sleep, she waits to the sound of a woman crying. She realizes that the woman is drowning and without thinking saves her. Lee goes to work and returns to the same spot to sleep again. The next morning, the woman, Hazel, knocks on Lee’s window with breakfast to thank her. The pair quickly form a bond and Hazel reveals that she is in an abusive marriage. Lee has grown ill after rescuing Hazel and while waiting in an autobody shop for her broken car window to be repaired a stranger offers her an orange the next day the stranger whose name is Jesse appears at the diner lee works at and they go on a date.
SarahA relationship blossoms between Jesse and Lee though she makes excuses to avoid revealing her housing situation lee shares some of Hazel’s story with Jesse eventually confiding that Hazel has asked for Lee’s help to leave her husband. And will give lee $50,000 on documents for new identity in exchange for Lee pretending to be Hazel for an afternoon so that Hazel can board a flight and leave the country Lee agrees and spends almost two hours at her friend’s house. Just before she’s about to leave, she visits the study where she finds Jesse’s body.
SarahHere the book switches from Lee’s point of view to Hazel’s as she describes how she met her husband, a successful defense attorney named Benjamin. He offered security and to provide medical care for Hazel’s ailing mother in exchange for giving him total control over her life. She remains with him because she otherwise couldn’t provide the care her mother needs Benjamin permits Hazel to work out and at the gym she meets and instantly connects with a trainer named Jesse. She and Jesse use her gym sessions as cover to sneak off and have sex. And eventually they devise a plan to free Hazel from her marriage by faking her drowning, the drowning that Lee saved Hazel from. We return to Lee’s perspective and she is devastated that Jesse whom she was falling for is dead. She breaks into his apartment to learn more about him and finds id for a man named Carter Sumner and starts to think that Jesse might not have been telling her the truth. She pieces together that Hazel and Jesse knew each other and finds a local number in the notebook that Jesse used to track his clients workouts. She dials it and the person on the other end asks if the caller is Lee.
SarahShaken, Lee visits Jesse’s brother, who is in prison. And with each piece of information she learns about Jessie feels more and more confused she speaks with Benjamin who reveals that his security team killed Jesse before he offers Lee $25,000 to move to Austin and set up a restaurant there. She considers the offer but doesn’t want to feel the same pressure to succeed that she felt with her first restaurant. She finds a recording hidden within Jesse’s pen which she ultimately provides to the police.
SarahWe rejoin Hazel, who has been confronted by Benjamin. Hazel is about to end her life when the police arrive and charge her husband with conspiracy to murder Hazel. For a moment Hazel thinks that this might be a way for her to be free of Benjamin, but it soon becomes clear just how powerful and manipulative he is. The wife of one of Benjamin’s partners visits Hazel with suggestions on how to secure her future. She also mentions Benjamin’s first wife whom Hazel doesn’t know about Hazel goes on to learn that this wife died in suspicious circumstances and suspects that Benjamin paid her family off to keep quiet. The situation starts to decline further for Hazel when her mother goes missing and Benjamin’s case is dismissed.
SarahShe’s fearful for her life and also for her mother’s she’s preparing to sell as much as she can for quick cash when Benjamin finds and threatens her telling her that Jesse, or Carter, was one of his former clients and didn’t care for her the way she thought. After Hazel learns that Jesse’s body has been found. She retrieves her fake passport the book closes with Hazel, now Nora, finding Lee, now Kelly, running a small beach cafe and the two agree to run it together.
BrookThanks, Sarah. That was a really great summary of this book that is really quite complicated. There are so lots of twists and if I’m honest I was relieved that it was your turn to do the summary because this one was tricky.
SarahAh, well there were a lot of things that happened and kind of the more I thought about it as I was preparing that summary, I was like oh this is this was a really good book because there’s so many things that are going on.
BrookExactly. A lot of twists and a lot of ah relationships between people that you don’t realize were taking place and so that like adds a layer to the secrets. So where should we start our “What would you do?” game?
SarahWell the first “what would you do?” that I have for you is, if you were Lee would you accept Hazel’s offer for the cash? And hazel I think also offers her fake ID saying “you’ll be able to start a new life if you just do me this favor.”
BrookSo Lee’s in a really bad position because as you mentioned in the summary, the attacker has stolen all her cash and all her identification. So, she essentially doesn’t exist. I realized that that’s the situation. But I don’t think that I could do it because she knows that Hazel’s husband is extremely violent. You know I think I would just be too big of a chicken to take this risk that this guy was going to find out what our plan was that I was going to pose as Hazel all day. It means she had to go into their house. She had to go to their house and be seen on their security cameras as if she were the wife and I’m just too big of a chicken I couldn’t do it. What about you, Sarah?
SarahSo I think I probably would really think very carefully about taking the money brook because throughout the book Lee talks about how this really isn’t her right? She had been a successful businesswoman. Ah, her restaurant was doing really well and then covered hit and like so many other businesses and so many other restaurants it just didn’t survive and because she had ah borrowed money from a I don’t remember if he was a bookie or some other. Underground Loan Shark um she owed this guy a lot of money and he actually injured her right? Ah like I think he um, injured 1 or 2 of her fingers so she got out of town. Um, but. This is not the situation. She wants to be in so any opportunity to get out of it I think if I were her I would really be considering taking it.
BrookYeah, it would be a hard decision I will say that um I think that Harding did a really good job kind of ah illustrating the way that somebody can become homeless really quickly. And I found that you know that first part of the book where she is living in her car and gets attacked and everything I found it really scary because I was like this could happen to someone like sometimes you read situations in ah you know a genre fiction and you’re like yeah like that’s going to happen but the way she laid it out that she had these bad business dealings and then. She had a rift with her family. Um, ah and then you know she had no money and this is was where the result of it I felt like it was very realistic. Um and speaking of the fallout with her family. Would you have blackmailed your brother in law. For money I mean ok, she had this scary guy on her tail who she owed money but I feel like there might have been some other ways to ask your family for money rather than blackmailing them.
SarahUm, I Yeah I I agree and I think she says she’d only met this potential I don’t know if her sister was married at the time but she’d only met this guy once or twice before right? So he wasn’t someone. Who you know her sister had been pretty. He wasn’t someone who her sister had been with for years and he was you know like part of the family. Um, maybe because of that it was easier for her to blackmail him right? I would like to think that I would probably approach my sister and say this guy is bad news.
BrookYeah, because she discovers that he’s cheating on the sister and I think you’re right I don’t think they’re married yet and so I agree the ah the steps would be to go to the sister and say I have a ah bad thing to tell you about your fiancee. Not. Hey this is a way to make that money that I need for the for the investor. Um, so that was a choice that really played out badly in Lee’s life and because it cut her off from her family. Her parents were no longer um wanting to be involved and yeah, she was cut off.
SarahI have another “what would you do?” related to her decision to take on Hazel’s identity for that afternoon. The day before Hazel had arranged for Lee to have a spa day and get completely pampered have a massage have a facial get her hair done and as it turns out, she got her hair cut almost exactly like Hazel’s. And Hazel suddenly comes up with that idea “why don’t you pose as me so that I can get out of town?” And obviously she had this she had this plan but Lee doesn’t know that. But once Lee is in the house and she’s puttered around the kitchen, making sure that she’s been visible on the in-home security cameras. She decides to go into the husband’s study. And there was no reason for her to do that. There was no, there was nothing that Hazel said you need to go in and get this thing or… she just was being nosy. Would you have done that?
BrookNo, that scene is so tense and like I I said I’d been too big of a chicken to do it in the first place when you know I mean this is like ah very affluent couple right? He’s a defense attorney I think.
SarahYeah, yeah.
BrookAnd they have a big house. They’ve got security, but so she already knows she’s got to go into this house. She’s gonna be on camera she’s got to pose as her I would be doing like least what? what’s that called what did what do you call that when you’re like I don’t know I would be doing the absolute bare minimum of the steps and just I think she had a certain amount of time she needed to spend in there so that she could recreate Hazel’s patterns and that’s all I would do I was like Lee you know what are you thinking girl.
SarahExactly and then I remember the first time that I read this book just that sort of jaw-dropping moment when she realizes who is in the chair because up until this point we’ve only had Lee’s perspective in the book and so we don’t know we only know what she knows about Jesse. And here’s this guy that she sees this potential future with dead in front of her.
BrookI knew that she was going to discover I mean because we didn’t haven’t had a dead body yet in this book right? And we were well into it, maybe over halfway. And so I knew she was going to find someone dead in there. But my guess was that it was going to be the husband and I was like oh Hazel killed her husband and now Lee looks like she’s Hazel and she’s going to get charged with this. But it was one of those moments where I had to put the book down. I was reading a ebook when I read it and when it was Jesse in the chair.
BrookThat twist really got me.
SarahYeah, no totally. Because there’s multiple conspiracies that are happening right? Hazel and Lee have their plan, Hazel and Jesse have their plan, Benjamin and Jesse have another plan right? and I think Jesse might have just even had his own plan as well. I don’t remember what they were framing Lee for? So I didn’t mention this in the in the intro but Lee discovers that Jesse was planning to frame Lee with Hazel’s help. One night Hazel goes to Jesse’s apartment when Lee’s car is parked outside and steals Lee’s knife, right? She knows that Lee has a large hunting knife that she uses to for safety. And Hazel goes in and steals that from Lee’s car with the intention of putting it in her house so that Jesse can find it when he breaks into the house. Jesse is supposed to be in the house when Lee is there and I don’t remember if he was there to kill Benjamin. That’s fuzzy for me. But Hazel ends up protecting Lee by throwing Lee’s knife into the ocean and disposing of other evidence that would have supported that story that Lee had become very jealous and obsessed with Hazel and was trying to harm her.
BrookYeah, and because they each have this alliance with Jesse but when they at the near the end they figure out that he’s not He’s not loyal to either one of them and so yeah, Hazel disposes of things to make that plan go away. So basically she sides she’s showing her allegiance to Lee.
SarahAnd and so here’s my what would you do there? Would you, if you were Hazel, do you think you would have had that second thought and reversed the plan that you had put into action with Jesse?
BrookI think so. I like that she did that. She’s got this period of time when her husband gets taken away for conspiracy to kill her and she’s alone in the house and she’s really trying to think through. And for a while she doesn’t know Jessie’s dead right? So she’s really trying to put all the pieces together of what has happened um and just like the reader we’re we’re trying to do the same thing. But yeah I think I I think I would have I think that that is a way for her to exonerate herself a little bit in the evil plan that she attached.
SarahIf you were in Hazel’s position and you’d married this man who turned out to be an absolute monster, I think I can see myself looking for a way to get out right? And she didn’t feel like there was any legal way for her to get out because she thought she had signed a contract with him. Now whether that kind of a contract would have any standing in court, I have no idea. But her husband was a lawyer and it’s suggested that Hazel has convinced herself that she’s not very smart. I think she’s much smarter than she realizes. But she has come to believe that she’s she wouldn’t be able to figure this out on her own and so you know I think if I were her and she meets Jesse, who is put in front of her by her husband right? But she meets him and thinks that yeah this might be a way. This might be a way out.
BrookYeah I think that that’s pretty believable of what she would be willing to do to get out of that relationship. Um, and Jesse is clearly very attractive and very charismatic to women because he just as easily hooks Lee . And you know that’s a what would you do question I had for you, Sarah. Do you think that you would so readily attach yourself to this stranger who just kind of conveniently shows up and I guess that goes along with you’re getting spa treatments and this guy shows up like do you think that you would be suspicious of these strange things all happening at the same time.
SarahSo I think that’s a really good question and and it’s she kind of um she becomes friends with both Hazel and Jesse at almost the same time right and has made a point of sharing that she has kept herself to herself and really not let anybody know who she is or where she is or where she’s come from and yet she meets these 2 people and very quickly draws. Sorry. And very quickly creates strong bonds with both of them I think ah Lee is really lonely. So I think that that’s a yeah I like I I if I were in her position I probably would be really appreciative of anybody showing me some kindness.
BrookYeah I think it came off that way I think that that is why, as you’re reading the story, that you can buy into it because you know and you said it this is not who she is. It’s not how she has typically lived but she’s living in her car. She’s only showering if she can like sneak into a like a rec center or something you know she’s not and so this gives her. I think both Jessie and Hazel give her a sense of like kind of who she used to be. You know someone who was attractive and somebody who had friends and um, the ah instant love affair kind of like made me worry for her obviously and we knew that it wasn’t going to be a great decision in the end. but um but I guess I guess you can understand why she did that.
SarahWell thank you, Brook I think this has been really fun to talk about The Drowning Woman and some of the some of the scenarios and whether whether we would be making the same decisions as the characters.
BrookIt was great. Aand I think I’ll be reading more Robyn Harding. I like her way of telling a psychological thriller. And we hope that you enjoyed the episode today too, listeners. Thanks for joining us on Clued in Mystery. I’m Brook.
SarahAnd I’m Sarah and we both love mystery.