By A.J. Finn, A serviceable thriller and homage to Hitchcock's Rear Window
This book has been popping up everywhere, like everywhere, and I love a good mystery. The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn is a psychological thriller that has been compared to books such as The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. It jumped to #1 on the bestseller lists upon release, fueled by a bidding war for the book (and accompanying film rights). Sounds promising, no?
Within the first few pages, it’s abundantly clear why there were so many The Girl on the Train comparisons. The set up seems oddly familiar. It opens with a woman who is voyeuristically looking through a window at other couples and people that she seems to have taken a deep interest in. Meanwhile, the woman herself is an isolated and depressed. She misses her estranged husband and is still in contact with him. Didn’t I just read this book? you can’t help but think.
Anna Fox, a former child psychologist, is agoraphobic as result of post-traumatic stress disorder. When the novel opens, it’s been around a year since she’s left her house, though her husband and daughter are no longer living there.
She’s depressed and drinks heavily and is on a medley of prescription drugs. Like The Girl on the Train and Hitchcock’s Rear Window, she believes she witnesses a crime, which serves as the central mystery of the novel. Anna is a lover of old movies — the classic black and white ones are the best, she tells us — and the many references to Rear Window indicate the homage is clearly intentional.
The Woman in the Window vs. Girl on the Train
As to whether or not you’d prefer Girl on the Train over this book, is probably a question of taste. On one hand, the Woman in the Window’s Anna Fox is a more developed character than the protagonist of The Girl on the Train — her state of mind and story and emotional arc overall is more fleshed out and a lot more satisfying.
On the other hand, the Woman in the Window moves a little slower in the initially because of that more fleshed-out character development. The first hundred pages or so proceed relatively slowly for a novel marketed for the thriller genre. Once the mystery aspect of the novel kicks into high gear, though, it begins to move along at a pretty quick clip.
I read Girl on the Train not too long ago, and the similarities between the two books were distracting for me in the beginning. Being led around by a narrator who was drunk and incapacitated all the time, unable to process what she remembered or thought she saw, was frustrating the first time around; I don’t know that it’s an experience I’d necessarily recommend twice in a row.
Book Review (and Controversy)
Despite my initial misgivings, when the mystery really gets underway, I found myself being drawn in. When the novel’s first real twist happens, I was surprised and pleased. The second half of the book sped by. The Woman in the Window twists and turns throughout the second half; some parts of it are more predictable than others, but even if you aren’t shocked at each turn, it’s a fun ride if you’re someone who enjoys trying to piece together or guess at what’s going to happen next. I figured out a pretty major plot twist fairly early on, but I still enjoyed the ride.
A.J. Finn is a pseudonym for Daniel Mallory, a former book editor for William Morrow, so the writing is predictably solid. In terms of the technical stuff, like pacing, etc. I have no qualms.
Like many thrillers, there’s a contrived quality to the story — plot elements shaped a little unnaturally for the purpose for having the mystery play out in a specific way, as opposed to for believe-ability or whatnot — and there’s still a few things that didn’t entirely make sense to me in the novel. For example, when Anna Fox reports what she saw to the police, for some bizarre reason, before they’ve even asked her about it, they bring in the person she is accusing and then ask her about it with them present? What type of detective operates like that? But I think these complaints are somewhat standard for most thrillers, and I don’t think they detracted from the story.
There’s also been a fair amount of controversy regarding A.J. Finn. See the New Yorker article here (about him lying about his background; Sophie Hannah makes an entertaining appearance in this, if you’re a fan of hers I’d highly recommend checking it out) and the New York Times article about plagiarism.
(Despite all the drama, it looks like another A.J. Finn novel is still on track.)
The Woman in the Window Movie Adaptation
The book is getting a movie adaptation starring Amy Adams and Julianne Moore. It was originally slated for a October 4, 2019 release, but test audiences found it confusing, so it has been pushed to 2020, pending reshoots and edits.
UPDATE 12/19: The trailer us out! See it on Youtube.
For all the details, see the Everything We Know About the Woman in the Window Movie.
Read it or Skip it?
All in all, I thought The Woman in the Window was a perfectly serviceable mystery/thriller. I liked it slightly more than the Girl on the Train, but not by a lot. I’d recommend it if you are a fan of the genre (it helps if you have not read the Girl on the Train). Probably won’t end up being your favorite book or anything, but a good pick to scratch that mystery/thriller itch. For everyone else, you might like it, but will probably end up thinking it is a little over-hyped (which it is).
Did you read it or are you planning on reading it? What did you think and would you read another book by this author? See The Woman in the Window on Amazon.
Where you surprised by the ending or did you see it coming? Did you think it was a good twist? How did it impact the way you saw the rest of the story?
What do you think about the use of protagonists who are substance abusers? It seems to be fairly common right to in mystery novels -- why do you think that is? Do you like it as a narrative device or no?
How plausible did you think the book was? Did that have an impact on your enjoyment of the novel?
What similarities did you see in this book with the movie Rear Window that it pays homage to?
Detailed Book Summary (Spoilers)
Chapters 1 - 8Anna Fox watches her neighbors (Rita and John Miller) through the zoom on her camera. They moved in two months ago and are one of five houses she can see. There's also The Wassermans (Henry and Lisa, lived there for decades) and the Grays (a family with two teenaged girls). Plus the Takedas are next to a vacant brownstone. Now, another set of new neighbors (Alistair and Jane Russell) are moving in across the park. They have a son, Ethan. Anna is agoraphobic, meaning she gets severe anxiety if she tries to leave her house. She keeps the house dark. She spends a lot of time on an online forum (Agora) with other agoraphobes. Her doctor is Dr. Julian Fielding. Anna uses her umbrella as a crutch to help her at least venture out into her garden. She used to be a child psychologist in private practice with her business partner Wesley Brill. Anna stopped working ten months ago. She misses all her patients. Anna catches up with her daughter (Olivia) and husband (Ed, they're separated) often. Anna has a tenant (David) that's been living in her spare room for a few months. He's young and cute. She also meets with her physical therapist (Bina) once a week. And she has a cat, Punch.
Chapters 9 - 15Anna has a visitor, Ethan Russell. He's a teenager. He brings by a gift (a candle) from his mom, He tells Anna they moved here from Boston for his dad's job. He is homeschooled. He gets emotional about missing his friends. Anna shows him her extensive classic movie collection and lets him borrow one. Some kids egg Anna's house, and she tries to go outside to stop them, but has a panic attack and doubles over. Jane Russell helps her back into her home. David cleans up the eggs. He also checks out the roof garden and tells her it needs work since it's overgrown and causing the skylight to leak. He gets reduced rent in exchange for household chores. Anna checks into Agora. Since she is a licensed psychologist, many users go to her for advice and refer others to her for help. Today, "grannielizzie" reaches out for help. Her husband passed and she needs help moving forward.
Chapters 16 - 23Anna is spying on her neighbors again and Jane catches her. But Jane just waves and goes over with a bottle of Riesling. They spend the afternoon hanging out, playing chess, chatting, etc. Jane does a sketch of her and mentions Alistar is a little controlling. Later that night, Alistar shows up, demanding to know if she'd had any visitors. Anna lies (says no), and he leaves. Anna is on a lot of different drugs, plus she's an alcoholic. Her doctor increases her prescription on her beta-blockers to see if it'll help. He later calls, reminding her not to take them with alcohol -- advice she doesn't heed. Anna gets trashed and tells Ed about it, who is concerned. They talk about their relationship, but are interrupted by David, who is looking for an X-acto knife so he can go help out the Russells. David notes that the landline is disconnected, but Anna shrugs it off.
Chapters 24 - 33Anna chats with "Grannielizzie" who has taken a first step by donating her husband's old clothes. It's about 5 PM. She's feeling good until she hears two screams coming from the Russell's house. She phones the police. She then calls the Russells. Ethan picks up, says it's fine and his dad just lost his temper and hangs up. She redials and Alistar picks up and denies there was any screaming. When David gets back, he says he didn't hear anything. Ethan shows up at her house in distress. He hugs her, crying. His dad won't let him have a cell, but Anna gives him her phone number in case he ever needs it. "Grannielizzie" asks Anna about her husband and their separation. She surprises herself by chatting about it. Anna wakes up confused from the mix of pills and alcohol. She sees Jane across the street and realizes she's shouting. Then she sees her stagger, bleeding from what looks like a knife. Anna grabs for her phone and calls the police. But when she sees a bloody hand print at the window, she bolts, determined to make it outside.
Chapters 34 - 40She grabs her umbrella to steady her and makes it to a bench in the park, but the light of approaching headlights is too much and she faints. She wakes up at the hospital with Detective Little there. He escorts her home (but has to drug her to get her home) and his partner Detective Norelli meets them there. Alistar arrives too. The detectives ask Anna what happened. She describes it, but Alistar denies stabbing Jane. The detectives say the medication and alcohol and movie she was watching might have caused her imagination to be on overdrive. Alistar then says that not only his wife out of town, but that Anna has never even met her. (As a total aside, it makes no sense to me that detectives would invite a potential suspect into Anna's home and force Anna to present her concerns in front of him without giving her a chance to speak to them separately, but whatever.) Anna explains how she spent time with Jane and is getting upset until Alistar's wife and Ethan show up. It's a woman Anna has never seen before.
Chapters 41 - 64Anna calls Bina and they do some research. They don't find any trace of Jane online, only a photo of Alister. Plus Ethan's nowhere to be found as well. She calls Alistar's office and finds out he left his job a little over a month ago. She goes looking for David in the basement, but he's not there. Instead he catches her peering into his room, which he is not happy with. He says that he never met Jane Russell. She apologizes for invading his privacy. He tells her he got into a fight at a bar and did a little time for assault, so he's a little protective about his space. He kisses her and they sleep together. Anna's agoraphobia: She'd had an affair and Ed had found out. They had decided to separate but Olivia didn't know yet. There's a vacation planned and they plan to tell her after Christmas. However, when they get to the resort, Ed decides they should just tell her. When they do, Olivia wants to leave immediately. There's a snowstorm coming so they hurry out before it hits. Anna drives. They get into an accident. They end up stuck wounded and bleeding in the car while the storm rages outside. She sees New Jane and determinedly grabs her umbrella and follows her unsteadily to the local coffee shop. She confronts her, but New Jane just asks to be left alone. Nick Takeda (the Takedas' son) ends up walking her home. She also talks to Ethan who refuses to say anything, and insists that New Jane is his mom.
Chapters 65 - 73Anna logs into her phone and finds she can't get in. She resets the password. Then, she gets an e-mail where the sender is listed as Jane Russell. It's a photograph of Anna asleep. Anna calls the detectives. They say that there's no way to track where the e-mail came from. Anna shows them the sketch Jane did, but they say she could've done it herself. Anna start spinning out, she accuses David of maybe being the killer (he had her knife, had gone over there that day, etc.). She brings up some pearl earrings she saw in his room. David says they belong to some random woman he met, Katherine. Finally the detectives say that they spoke to her doctor, Dr. Fielding. They know that she has mental issues, and that Olivia and Ed are both dead.
Chapters 65 - 81Anna knows they are dead but she's in denial. She still hears their voices. After the accident, they'd been outside in the snow because their windshield had eventually broken and it took two more days for people to find them. By that time, Ed was gone. Olivia was still alive, but ultimately didn't make it. Anna stopped being able to go outside after that. Anna sleeps for days, then she calls Dr. Wesley Brill. She tells him about Ed discovering their affair. He tells her he just wants to move on. David decides to move out and gives her back her key. Anna starts to think maybe she did hallucinate or something. Her cat, Punch, is limping because of an injured paw.
Chapters 82 - 91Alistar shows up at her home. He chokes her, gives her back the key she gave to Ethan, and tells her to take this as a warning and stay away. Anna starts considering the possibility that Jane #1 was the fake one. She realizes she had called her Jane before she had identified herself. Anna scrolls idly through her phone and realizes there's a photo she took where Jane #1 was caught in the reflection of a window. Anna calls Ethan and tells him to come over, but Alistar catches him on the phone.
Chapters 92 - 93Ethan shows up, saying he lied to his dad. Anna shows him the photo of Jane #1. He finally admits it's his biological mother. He tells her he was adopted when he was 5. Her name is Katie. Alistar was angry about her showing up, but it was Jane #2 who stabbed her out of fear that she had come to take Ethan away.
Chapters 94 - 98Ethan shows up in her room. He tells her he visits her at night. He says he's been to a lot of shrinks and they've all diagnosed him with personality disorders. He's went to visit his dad's old boss's wife one night and that's why his dad had to leave his job. He says he was the one who broke Anna's cat's leg. He was the one who caused Katie to scream. Katie used to be a drug addict when he was little and let her boyfriends beat him. He stabbed Katie. Alistar has been trying to keep him under control. Ethan is the user "grannielizzie" that she's been chatting with. He used it to get information from her. Anna kicks him to get away. She forces herself to exit up to the roof despite her condition. It's raining hard outside (there was a Flood Warning earlier). They get to the edge of the roof and he knocks her over. He's about to attackher, but she stops him by saying that Katie told her who Ethan's father is. She loved the guy, he was an architect and he died (which is why Katie fell apart and turned to drugs). As Ethan process the information, Anna hugs him -- and then pushes him onto the skylight, which then breaks and he falls downward.
Chapters 99-100Six Weeks Later Ethan ended up dying. Alistar is arrested for covering up the murder of Katie. Bina helps her take a few steps on the roof, into the light.
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