Published by William Morrow
Publication date: January 2nd 2018
After a traumatic accident, Dr. Anna Fox is homebound, crippled by agoraphobia. She and her husband are separated and due to her condition, their young daughter lives with him. In this day and age, with the internet and home delivery of virtually anything needed to sustain life, Anna doesn’t find it to be as devastating as one might expect. She can indulge her love of old movies and keep loneliness at bay with chat rooms and internet forums. And with an expensive camera she keeps tabs on the intimate goings-on in her Manhattan neighborhood. As A.J. Finn’s debut novel, The Woman in the Window, begins new neighbors, the Russells, catch her attention. Husband, wife, and teenage son, they don’t seem likely to add much oomph to Anna’s pervasive spying, until, suddenly, they’re all she can see.
What Anna sees is the murder of Jane, Alistair Russell’s wife. A woman who had kindly visited her several days before and with whom she’d spent an enjoyable afternoon drinking wine and playing chess. She does the right thing and calls 911, but…did I mention that Anna has a love of wine and pills—at a fairly astonishing intake rate? Pills originally prescribed for the excruciating pain from her accident, for the resulting anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness, but now taken randomly and with copious amounts of wine. When the police come to investigate they discover that Mrs. Russell is alive and well. And from that moment on, Anna’s life, and The Woman in the Window, becomes one wild ride of suspense and misdirection.
Finn excels is in transmuting Anna from the page into the reader. Each time after reading, I wondered if I would stagger when I got up. Did I feel woozy? Had I read those chapters correctly? The fug of Anna’s wine and pill consumption is hard to comprehend (at least to someone who can have two glasses of wine max). Pills originally prescribed for the excruciating pain from her accident, for the resulting anxiety, depression, and sleeplessness, but now taken randomly and with copious amounts of wine. She drinks bottles a day, with little or no food and mixes them, without thought, with her heavy arsenal of pills.
Anna is a quintessential unreliable narrator, which can be a tricky thing to pull off. I took issue with The Girl on the Train for using an alcoholic as the unreliable narrator because it felt too easy. The same might be said of The Woman, but Finn distributes the freight on this train in a way that kept me both as amused as I was horrified. Part of this is due to the fact that Anna is not a hapless victim. She is a psychologist and as such is well versed in the dangers of taking her meds with alcohol and yet, every time her own psychiatrist asks her, “You’re not taking this with alcohol?” she answers, “No” even as she thinks, ‘Yes.” She knows what she’s doing even as she lies to everyone around her. She makes no efforts to hide her situation, going so far as to pour herself a glass of wine in front of the police. Somehow her self-awareness ameliorates her role as tragic witness who has no idea what’s going on.
A key reason why Anna’s dodgy narrator status doesn’t stand out is that everyone in The Woman in the Window is suspicious. And not just the characters. NOTHING can be trusted in the novel. As someone who rails against implausible plots you’d think this would be a problem, but Finn directs the confusion so skillfully throughout the novel I buy it. You may lose track of what’s going on and who’s telling the truth but he never does. You will think you have it all figured out, and you will, but not all, just part. This will happen repeatedly. This makes for reading that is either going to be exactly what you wanted or is going to seem outlandish. I fell into the fan category and appreciated every head-shaking, nail-biting, confusing, upside-down moment of the book. I was looking for greatly entertaining, escapist reading and found it.
p.s. If you’re an old movie fan, you’ll catch glimpses of classic movie plots throughout The Woman in the Window. It’s a sly bit of humor on Finn’s part, with two Hitchcock references: the witnessed murder is straight out of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (which you should watch, if for no other reason than Grace Kelly’s wardrobe) and Anna’s agoraphobia echoes the theme of Vertigo. Last, but not least, Gaslight is a special favorite and feels like exactly what Finn is doing to Anna and the reader.