“The Woman in the Window” By A.J. Finn. William Morrow, New York, 2018. 448 pages. $26.99.
“It isn’t paranoia if it’s really happening,” says Anna Fox, the psychologically battered, agoraphobic, seemingly hysterical woman who claims to have witnessed a stabbing in the house across the park from her own. We believe her. Well, we mostly believe her. We were right there with her, watching through the long lens of her Nikon D5500 Opteka lens when it happened. True, she was drunk, drugged on psych meds and all alone in a five-floor townhouse for the last year. Come to think of it, it’s hard to know what to believe.
Thus, the troubles of 38-year-old Anna Fox expand exponentially. She is vulnerable, a spy, a stalker, a fright, and a danger to herself. Yet, before her agoraphobia took hold of her, she was a mother, a wife and a child psychologist with a successful practice in New York City. “The Woman in the Window’s” 448 pages turn faster than the blades of a fan. The only thing slowing readers down are the occasional explosive twists we don’t see coming. We stop, catch our breath, marvel at the turn of events, and read on. Those twists, by the way, are some of the best in contemporary thrillers.
This instant bestseller is exceedingly well-plotted and joyously written. The author, A.J. Finn, a literary agent who told none of his peers that he was writing this book, clearly loves to write. For him, every verb is an opportunity; every line another chance to flex his writerly muscle. In Finn’s fiction, Jane doesn’t light a cigarette, she “sparks a Virginia Slim.”
Anna Fox is housebound and for reasons we don’t understand, her husband and daughter have moved out. They’re friendly and speak daily on the phone, though it doesn’t appear that a reconciliation is in the offing. She lives in an expensive Harlem enclave, shut in by her severe agoraphobia and surrounded by busy families with plenty of windows and entertainment value.
Anna leads a remarkably full life. David, a handsome and solicitous tenant — who turns out to be an ex-con — lives in the basement apartment. Her concerned psychiatrist visits once a week as does her attentive personal trainer. She plays online chess and always wins. She frequently logs onto the website Agora, where she generously counsels and cheers on others like herself, often with success. And she is a serious fan of the old black-and-white noir and mystery movies that serve as a rich backdrop for this book. Among other good things, “The Woman in the Window” is a tribute to “Rear Window” — but modernized to include Internet passwords, Fresh Direct deliveries, personal trainers, and all the contemporary lingo … “DSM-5,” PTSD and LOL.
The book starts off with a bang. Anna watches the woman across the street launch into a tryst with her contractor when, suddenly, her husband approaches the house, home early from work. The second sentence in the book: “He’ll catch her this time.” That’s Anna talking because the book is written in first person. The woman lucks out when her husband’s briefcase snaps open just outside the door and he has to pause to collect his papers. Don’t relax. This is a high-gear read.
Anna stays lively and fairly upbeat until she witnesses Jane Russell stagger into view, through the window of the house across the park, a knife plunged into her chest and blood blooming across her white blouse. Previously, Anna and Jane had shared a heady evening talking, drinking and playing chess, and Anna learned that Alistair, the husband, was “controlling.” She called the police and told Detective Little everything she knew. She is deemed unreliable from the get-go.
Things turn dark. Alistair’s teenage son Ethan visits Anna and appears terribly anxious and afraid. They become friends, despite the protestations of his father. Anna’s passwords fail. Someone photographs her while she sleeps. She finds evidence supporting her story in her digital images. Too little, too late. She has, by then, sunk into a drunken, drugged state of utter abandon. She’s mixing strong medications with excess alcohol, actions known to cause hallucinations and worse. And she is forced to confront her own monstrous demons.
The twists in this book are praiseworthy and the writing is a delight. The story doesn’t drag as it could, given that it’s a hybrid locked-room mystery that goes on for 448 pages. The ending, however, disappoints. It’s the only left-field moment in the book. And I wanted a better picture of Anna, who seemed too unbathed, too bedraggled, too smelly and too insane to have attracted the drop-dead handsome tenant. She describes herself in the harshest terms — wrinkles like spokes, slack belly, dimpled thighs, gray hairs, stubble in armpits, luridly pale with violet veins. There has to be more to her physicality than the one inspired by self-loathing.
Another thing Finn does very well is create likable and compassionate characters like Detective Little and the Takeda boy who plays his cello and visits Anna. They are a welcome relief.
The book was highly publicized at last year’s BookExpo in Manhattan and was, last spring, already in development as a major motion picture at Fox 2000. It is a happy success story, deservedly so.
— Rae Padilla Francoeur can be reached at email@example.com.