Rich white people aren’t sympathetic: a review of The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

Hey guys, I’m aware that this isn’t really my usual type of content (not counting my short-lived attempt at book blogging, which actually started as a project for a journalism class), but I’m coming off my second week in a row of overtime while also trying to finish my bachelor’s degree and promote my new book, and I frankly don’t have the spoons for the type of research that goes into my witchcraft/paganism content. If you’d like to see me talking about magic and spirituality, please consider checking out my book, Witchcraft for Everyone, which is currently available on both Amazon and Etsy in ebook, paperback, and large-print/dyslexia-friendly formatting, and is sitting pretty at a 5/5 star average rating. (Yes, this is a shameless plug. Ya girl has bills to pay.)

If you follow my TikTok or Instagram, you know that at times like these, I turn to fiction for some good ol’ fashioned escapism. My go-to genres when I’m in this type of funk are romance, mystery/thriller, and horror, probably because they’re all genres that evoke a strong physical reaction in the reader by appealing to senses and emotions. (If there are any other media studies nerds out there, The Bestseller Code by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers is a really interesting look at the science behind these genres.) When I’m feeling exhausted, overworked, or burned out, I don’t necessarily want to read a book that will change my life, expand my horizons, or teach me something new. I am literally looking for cheap thrills.

All of this is to say, I didn’t hate The Hunting Party because it was vapid or shallow — I picked it up because I wanted an entertaining-but-not-that-deep thriller. For a certain kind of reader (a.k.a., me at the end of a 60+ hour work week), shallow is a plus. So no, I didn’t hate this book because it was shallow, although it was definitely that.

I hated it because the plot is almost nonexistent and the characters are unlikable, unrelatable, unsympathetic, and boring.

The setup to this story is compelling. As described on the book’s Goodreads page: “During the languid days of the Christmas break, a group of thirtysomething friends from Oxford meet to welcome in the New Year together, a tradition they began as students ten years ago. For this vacation, they’ve chosen an idyllic and isolated estate in the Scottish Highlands—the perfect place to get away and unwind by themselves. They arrive on December 30th, just before a historic blizzard seals the lodge off from the outside world. Two days later, on New Year’s Day, one of them is dead.”

I was hoping this would be a modern update of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, hopefully with some smart criticisms of the Golden Triangle (which, from what I understand, is the British equivalent of the Ivy League and includes schools like Oxford and Cambridge) and the elitism associated with them. After all, we’re told from the very beginning that one of these Oxford grads is a cold-blooded murderer.

Unfortunately, what I got was a boring, drawn-out character drama about the lives and frustrations of seven stupid-rich assholes. The book starts by telling us how exclusive and expensive this Highlands vacation is, and then adding that one of the couples brought well over £1,000 (roughly $1,300 USD) worth of champagne for the trip. And then it describes the elaborate New Years feast they have planned, which includes the likes of foie gras and caviar. There’s so much ridiculous and unnecessary flaunting of wealth that at first I almost wondered if it was meant as satire.

Besides being way too wealthy to be relatable to anyone who doesn’t shop at Burberry and own multiple Porsches, these characters are also deeply unsympathetic people. I get that the point of the story is that they all peaked in university, but their post-Oxford lives feel like a bad soap opera. Who is currently sleeping with who and who else they’ve hooked up with in the past is not only a major plot point — it gets way more attention than the actual murder.

This book is less about a murder mystery and more about the complex web of drama that connects a bunch of rich, white, cishet people. There is one named character of color (an Indian-British woman, whose culture literally never comes up) and a white gay couple (one of whom is a recovering drug addict, because that’s not a stereotype), but none of them get any development. In fact, they get significantly less “screen time” than the other characters. We’re told that Katie comes from a lower economic class than the others, but by the time the story takes place she’s a successful lawyer well on her way to partnership at a London firm, which makes her angst about social status feel way less believable.

This book reminded me of the love-hate relationship I have with the whole “dark academia” genre/subculture. While this book isn’t technically part of that genre, there is some shared DNA — namely the elite, highly-educated protagonists, the gloomy moody tone, and, unfortunately, the tendency to center the wealthy white experience. I think some books that choose to engage with these topics do so in a way that is clever, subversive, and self-aware, like Bunny by Mona Awad or Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas. But a lot of them, like The Hunting Party, end up romanticizing an academic culture that is ultimately very racist, elitist, and built around unhealthy work/study habits, with zero willingness to even acknowledge any of those issues.

This might have bothered me less if The Hunting Party had anything more than the barest bones of a plot, but most of the word count was dedicated to the friend group drama. The murder isn’t even discovered until well past the halfway point of the book. And when it is discovered, the story still keeps pivoting back to the who-slept-with-who drama throughout the investigation.

One of my biggest issues with this book was the conclusion, which I will obviously have to spoil to talk about it. So here’s your official spoiler warning: major plot details discussed below.

Emma was the only one of the friends that I found at all sympathetic. She wasn’t part of the group at Oxford, and is only invited on their trips because she married Mark, one of the “inner circle.” She understandably feels like an outsider and feels a lot of anxiety about whether the others actually like her or just tolerate her because she’s Mark’s wife. I think this is one of the most realistic and relatable parts of the book. Navigating relationships with our partners’ old friends, who have a whole history we aren’t a part of, is something most people experience at some point. It’s certainly more relatable (at least to me), then Katie, who is having an affair with her best friend’s husband but ~feels really bad~ about it, or Julien, whose possible motive is insider trading, in case you forgot he was a wealthy asshole.

So, of course, guess who the killer was?

If you guessed Emma, gold star! And if you guessed that there’s a last minute plot twist that reveals that Emma suffers from a vague “personality disorder” and has been obsessed with the victim, Miranda, for years, double gold star! That’s right, folks: the only character who feels even a little bit like a real, non-deplorable human being is actually a crazy stalker who infiltrated the friend group in order to be closer to her victim.

Y’all, I am so fucking sick of mysteries and thrillers in which the “twist” is mental illness. I tend to be more forgiving with older books with this kind of twist (Robert Bloch’s Psycho comes to mind) because psychology was a new and poorly understood field when they were written, but in 2022 we should know better. Can we PLEASE stop demonizing mental health issues for cheap shock value?

Emma’s “personality disorder” is poorly described, but the symptoms that are described sound to me (in my totally amateur opinion) like Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). I know several people with BPD, and I think they would agree with me when I say that someone with this disorder is much more likely to hurt themselves than to hurt others. Also, BPD is highly treatable and often responds well to therapy. It definitely doesn’t make you murder your friend in a fit of rage because she confronted you about stalking her for over a decade.

After dropping this hot garbage twist, the book ends rather abruptly. We’re told in an epilogue that Emma won the jury over with a sob story about her personality disorder and got her charge reduced to manslaughter, with a measly four year prison sentence. Now, as an American, this sounded like total bullshit to me. If a rich, conventionally attractive white girl is killed in America, the general public is going to be out for blood. The American criminal justice system is notoriously intolerant of mental illness, and several states don’t even have an insanity plea. However, it turns out The Hunting Party is based on a real-life 2017 case in which an Oxford student stabbed her boyfriend and got off with just a 10-month jail sentence, which was suspended in part because of mental health problems and in part because it might damage her “promising future.” So, maybe British courts are just way more forgiving than I thought, at least when it comes to pretty white girls from rich families.

My second least-favorite pat of the ending is that, aside from the murder victim, none of the rich asshole characters get any sort of comeuppance. No one faces any consequences for any of their shitty behavior. None of them really seem to have changed or grown at all. All of that character drama was ultimately pointless.

Is this the worst book I’ve ever read? No. The writing style is actually quite good, and the premise is promising. But the issues discussed above were enough to keep me from enjoying it, and I feel like these issues are part of larger problems with the way we engage elitism, wealth, and mental illness in mainstream literature.

Overall Rating: 2 Stars

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