Woman in the Window a Good Read, but a Pasteup Job

By A. J. Finn
HarperCollins, 448 pages.

The Woman in the Window is a thrilling read, yet by all rights it shouldn’t be. Let me address the gorilla in the room. I liked this book, but it’s a work of intellectual piracy. Take the unreliable observer/narrator of The Girl on a Train, the troubled teens from any Tana French novel, the disappearing act from Gone Girl, the creepy voyeurs from the films Three Colors: Red and Rear Window, plus skeptical law enforcement from the latter, and you’ve got The Woman in the Window.

Anna Fox is a former high-profile child psychologist laid low by agoraphobia, separation from her husband and daughter, and over-fondness for Merlot—which she seemingly drinks by the vat. She still does some counseling, but online and from the anonymous confines of her home office. Few of her clients realize that she too is in therapy, or that her only in-person human contacts are visits from her therapist, her trainer, delivery people, and the renter in her basement. Her neighbors certainly don’t know that Anna spends much of her day spying on them through a high-powered zoom lens on a tripod-mounted camera in her bedroom.

Anna’s life gets more complicated when a new family moves next door—the Russells: Alistair, Jane, and their teenage son Ethan. Anna perceptively intuits that Ethan is troubled and soon, he too visits Anna. But a much stranger visit comes Ethan’s mother, who bonds with Anna over girl talk and free-flowing Merlot. Imagine Anna’s shock when shortly thereafter, she zooms in on what she perceives to be Jane’s fatal stabbing, which she duly reports. Big problem: mom isn’t dead, she’s never met Anna, and the Russells tell her in no uncertain terms they should leave her alone and have nothing to do with Ethan. The cops, of course, write off the incident as the drunken hallucination of a lonely, depressed woman.

Of course, there is more than meets the eye, or there wouldn’t be much to the book, let alone enough to propel it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list. This is where things get messy for me as reviewer. I continued to read even though I was pretty certain I had sorted out all the red herrings before I was a third of the way through. By the time I was half done, I was sure I had identified the key figure in the mystery. A few pages later, I was confident I also knew the identity of the eventual villain. Turns out I was correct on all accounts. Still, I persisted to what was ultimately a fairly obvious conclusion.

My excuse is that some books are plotted well and written badly, and some–like The Woman in the Window–are plotted badly but are skillfully written. Maybe I would have felt differently had I known about a now-exposed mystery external to the book itself. I never read about authors until I finish a book, as I don’t want to be trapped in the Hype Machine, so I was unaware of this novel’s authorial controversy. In short, there is no A. J. Finn; it’s a pen name for Daniel Mallory. A nom de plume is, of course, common in literature, but Mallory’s case is different. He’s also the executive editor of William Morrow and Company, which bought the book’s rights. It also owns rights to Gone Girl and the parent company, HarperCollins, released and flogged the novel. Can you say, “conflict of interest?”

I’ll overlook this because Finn/Mallory is a very good writer who kept me reading even though I knew his plot to be a cut-and-paste project. Still, the subterfuge, the lack of originality, and weak plot development prevents me from joining the chorus of praise for The Woman in the Window. I must call it what it really is: a good beach read. Literature? Nah! For that you need to show something new. It’s fitting that one of Anna’s shut-in activities is repeatedly watching old films. I’ve seen Finn’s story before. And before. And before. And before…

Rob Weir

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