67 pages 2 hours read

Ruth Ware

In A Dark Dark Wood

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2015

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware, is a psychological mystery thriller published in 2015. The story centers around protagonist Leonora Shaw (known as “Nora” in the present day and formerly as “Lee” and “Leo”). The narrative alternates between scenes from the present, with Nora in the hospital after a car accident, and Nora’s spotty recollections of the weekend party that took place in the immediate past. Nora has a head wound and senses that something terrible happened, something that forced her to run desperately through the dark forest.

The main part of the story details the hen do (bachelorette party) that Nora attends. The invitation to this party was a shock to Nora, as the bride-to-be is Clare Cavendish, who was Nora’s best friend through primary and secondary school, but whom she has not seen in the decade since then. Nora alludes to some serious situation that makes her want to keep her former friends like Clare in her past. Nora does not want to go to the hen party but feels compelled to go when the maid of honor, Florence “Flo” Clay, begs her to come. Another invitee is Nora’s friend Nina de Souza, the only friend from school with whom she has kept in touch.

Nora and Nina arrive at the hen weekend, held at a remote house in the forest owned by Flo’s aunt. The other guests are Melanie Cho, a new mother who knew Clare and Flo at university, and Tom Deauxma, who worked with Clare for the Royal Theatre Company.

Clare reveals that she is marrying James Cooper, who was Nora’s boyfriend in school. This news shocks Nora. After their breakup, Nora severed contact from James and has not seen him in the 10 years since. In Nora’s narration, there are veiled indications that some crucial, unfinished matter exists between Nora and James. This mysterious event influences the reclusive way Nora has lived her life since school.

There is a lot of tension at the party that evening, due to the strangely oppressive house, Flo’s extremely overbearing need to make this the “perfect” hen do for Clare, and Nora’s struggle to deal with her undisclosed, traumatic memories concerning Clare and James. Nina makes sarcastic jokes about Nora and James during the party that upsets Nora. When Nora wants to go to bed before the others, Flo becomes enraged, proclaiming that Nora is “ruining” Clare’s hen party.

In the morning, Melanie decides to leave. She misses her baby and is not enjoying the party. Because there is no cell phone reception at the house and the landline has gone down, she can’t reach her family and insists on returning home. Flo is again furious and then inconsolable that the party is being “ruined.” The group goes to a clay pigeon shooting range that day and Flo gives the others a “How well do you know the groom?” quiz.

Interspersed in the chapters detailing the party are brief chapters set in the present time, with Nora in the hospital. She overhears that someone has died and then later hears that the police suspect murder. Nora desperately tries to remember what happened. Later chapters reveal that James died at the house. Nora remembers holding James after he received a bullet wound. She also remembers running after Clare’s car, but she can’t remember what led up to those events. James’s best man, Matt, comes to visit Nora at the hospital and reveals that James and Clare had relationship problems.

After returning from the shooting range, the group has dinner and then Flo organizes an Ouija board séance. After Nina and Tom make a few joking “messages,” the group is very unsettled when the board writes out “Mmmmmmuurderrrrrrrrrrrrrer.” No one admits to having pushed the planchette.

After the hen do attendees go to bed, they all hear a noise downstairs. The locked door in the kitchen is banging open. Flo takes the shotgun from the mantle to deter any intruders. Everyone returns to bed, but soon, they hear more noises. The group huddles at the top of the stairs, Flo clutching the shotgun. They hear footsteps and see a figure coming up the stairs. The gun goes off, and to her horror, Nora realizes that Flo unwittingly shot James. Nina, who is a doctor, tries to stabilize his wound. Clare brings her car to the front door, claiming that she was away trying to get a cell phone signal. They carry James and place him in the backseat. Nina tries to accompany them in the car, but Clare drives off without her.

Nora’s memories start to blur, and she can’t clearly remember what happened next. Detective Constable Lamarr confronts Nora with her confiscated cell phone. The messages indicate that Nora asked James to come to the house that night, cementing Nora’s culpability in the crime. With this evidence, the police formally accuse Nora of conspiring to kill James.

Nora reveals in her narration the truth about why she left school and ex-communicated from her friends, including James. After Nora revealed her unexpected pregnancy to James, he sent her a cruel text, breaking up with her and telling her that the baby was her problem. With Clare’s help, Nora had an abortion, then left school.

Now, Nora must prove she is not James’s murderer, so she escapes from the hospital. Nora takes a taxi back to Flo’s aunt’s house. She reenacts the events of the night of the shooting and remembers that after Clare drove away, she found a blank shotgun shell in Clare’s coat. Clare arrives at the house and offers to make her and Nora a cup of tea. As they talk, Nora has an epiphany. She remembers that the breakup text from James called her “Lee,” Clare’s nickname for her. James always called Nora “Leo.” Nora realizes that Clare sent the text to ensure Nora and James’s breakup. Nora confronts Clare, and Clare admits that she finally confessed her duplicitous action to James. Angered, James insisted that Clare tell Nora, so Clare invited Nora to the hen do to reveal the truth.

Nora realizes that Clare planned James’s death to conceal her treachery and protect her reputation. Clare had Flo send text messages from Nora’s phone to set her up as the murderer. With this realization, Nora tries to run away from Clare but finds herself in a daze. Confused, Nora spills her tea and sees that Clare has put grounded up pills into the drink to poison her. Nora urgently escapes from the house and runs into the dark forest. Clare follows in her car but crashes into the investigating detective’s patrol car.

Nora wakes up in the hospital again. The police now know Clare killed James and have enough proof to charge her. Nora learns that Flo, ridden with guilt from her part in the murder, swallowed pills with the intent to kill herself and later died from the after-effects.

At the end of the story, Nora is back home in London. Away from the traumatic events surrounding both her past and James’s recent death, Nora finds relief in her familiar surroundings. Amid this calm, she receives an email from Matt, James’s best friend. The novel ends without revealing whether Nora decides to read his email.