The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (William Morrow, 2018)
A friend, whose opinion on literature I respect greatly, reported to me recently that she had just finished reading A.J. Finn's debut novel, The Woman in the Window. Of it she said, “I wish I hadn't finished it,” which I interpreted to mean, “It was so good I'm sorry that I finished it.” Oops, that's not what she meant, I realized when I finished the mostly engaging novel. But, I will get back to this thought a little later in my review.
The premise of The Woman in the Window is solid. After an extremely traumatic event, Dr. Anna Fox, a psychiatrist who specializes in the mental issues of children, has been shut in her house. Anna is suffering from “Agoraphobia: In translation the fear of the marketplace, in practice the term for a range of anxiety disorders.” (p. 26) Every time Anna tries to leave her home, panic attacks overwhelm her, and she collapses from the fear of being outside the safe cocoon of familiar ground.
Anna spends her days doing four things; she drinks wine, starting at breakfast, she views old movies, particularly suspense thrillers like The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, and Gaslight, she treats people who are shut-ins like her on a website that she has established, using the handle thedoctorisin, and she is a voyeur, peeking out of her window, watching her neighbors, an act that calls to mind the suspenseful Hitchcock film, Rear Window, which starred Jimmy Stewart. Stewart's character has been house bound due to a broken leg, and confides what he witnesses to his gorgeous girlfriend, portrayed by Grace Kelly.
The homage to Hitchcock's masterpiece is unmistakeable as the reader gets caught in Anna's web of suspicions about the new neighbors who have moved into the renovated area of Harlem, across the park from Anna's home. Alistair and Jane Russell have joined the neighborhood with their teenage son, Ethan, whom Anna often watches at night as he sits at his computer. Anna witnesses a violent event that occurs in the Russell's home, but when she calls the police, they do not believe her due to her condition, and the fact that she is heavily self-medicating, not only with wine which she has delivered to her home by the case, but by prescription pain killers which help treat an undisclosed physical injury.
For the most part the novel really works. Aside from a relationship that Anna begins to cultivate with young Ethan across the park, and a pleasant encounter with his mother, Jane, Anna has a handsome tenant, who lives in her basement and pays rent to help Anna offset expenses. Her husband, Ed, has moved out of the house and taken their only child, Olivia, with him, much to Anna's dismay. The reason for their estrangement is not revealed for most of the book, and the question of their relationship hangs over the story like a nagging toothache.
Anna begins to experience a bit of “gas lighting” herself. Mysterious and onerous things begin to happen in her home. A picture of herself sleeping during the night is sent to her on her phone, and things disappear from her household, and then return. The police theorize that Anna has gone off the deep end and may be doing these things to herself. Anna is frustrated by the fact that no one believes her and even she begins to question her grip on reality.
A.J. Finn, whose real name is Daniel Mallory, is an Oxford graduate and former book critic and editor. His skills as a wordsmith are excellent; the book is well written and holds the reader's attention throughout. It doesn't quite hold one of the edge of her seat, but it's a good read . . . up until the ending.
So now back to what my friend meant when she said that she wished that she hadn't finished the book. The book's ending is so predictable and flat that it disappoints on every level, and for an author who spent time as a critic and editor, that is a perplexing problem. There is actually no climax to the novel, when there really could have been, and about thirty pages of denouement that were so boring that I really didn't care what happened to Anna, or any of the other characters for that matter.
The thing about the classic suspense movies is that they hold the viewer on the edge of the seat until the last nail biting moment fades into the film's credits. We identify with the character as he or she is terrorized during the story. Unfortunately, Finn failed to pack the emotional wallop that a thriller really needs.