4 out of 5 Stars
In The Woman in the Window, A. J. Finn draws inspiration from classic Hitchcockian suspense films and the slew of successful “Girl” psychological thrillers in his mashup of Rear Window, Girl on a Train, and Gaslight. Although the writing is uneven at times and the story feels familiar, it’s a nice addition to the genre and it’s going to make a terrific movie.
Anna Fox hasn’t left her house for months, due to a crippling case of agoraphobia. The cause of her anxiety is a mystery within the mystery, and its revelation is a gut punch. As a former psychologist, she knows exactly how to treat her condition, but is unable to manage. The irony doesn’t escape her, and she tells the tale with a detached, sardonic, and often very funny voice.
The beginning of the book establishes her routine, which consists of spying on her neighbors, watching classic mystery movies, and consuming large amounts of merlot and prescription pills. The occasional visits from therapists, interactions with the downstairs tenant, and phone calls with her separated husband and daughter are the only things that break the monotony. It seems she could continue in this depressed lifestyle for a long, long time, wandering through her Harlem brownstone in semidarkness. Before long, the five-story house feels claustrophobic, even to the reader.
It must be difficult for an author to give a character motion in such a closed setting, but Finn’s abundance of synonyms jarred after a few unusual instances. Anna surges, steals, stalks, subsides, slopes, scurries, scuttles, and shuffles into rooms. She pivots and pours, keels and clops, wades, lurches, ebbs, travels, trips, treads, trudges, fumbles and flies around her house. Sometimes the thesaurus needs to go back on the shelf and a character should simply walk. The odd word choices drew me out of the story.
Things start moving when the Russell family moves into the neighborhood, giving Anna something new to watch through the powerful zoom lens of her camera. The teenage son, Ethan, and later his mother, Jane, visit Anna and she soon suspects the family’s dysfunctional. One day, she hears a scream from their house, then days later, while spying on them, she sees Jane murdered.
Or does she? The police are skeptical about her story, especially since her blood alcohol level is twice the legal limit and her meds can cause hallucinations. The Russells deny anything happened, and a new Jane Russell is conjured from Boston. The frustration Anna feels at being dismissed felt visceral to me, perhaps even more so with all the #metoo stories of women not being believed in the news. But the police raise good questions. Perhaps Anna’s confusing the Hitchcock movies she adores with reality.
The way the truth comes out disappointed me, although I believe it’s a common method in Hitchcock films. And parts of the villain’s persona didn’t gel with me. Would this person really “giggle” so often while disclosing the evil plans? And some of the methods used to unhinge Anna seemed a stretch. But the plot is tight, which is satisfying.
A real strength of the book is the descriptions of Anna’s panic attacks when she attempts to step outside the house. Her stream-of-conscious thoughts place us right beside her, experiencing her fear. “And then it bulges toward me, swelling, now rushing, a boulder flung from a catapult; slams me with such force, walloping my gut, that I fold. My mouth opens like a window. Wind whips into it.” Powerful writing. Knowing Anna’s backstory, we root for her to conquer her fear, and when she does, it’s almost more satisfying than a well-plotted mystery becoming clear.
But not as satisfying as hearing the previously dismissive detective tell her, “I owe you an apology.”