Arts and Culture, Film, Literature

The Woman in the Window Book Review: A J Finn’s twisty thriller is a fascinating study of a mind unleashed

It’s perhaps ironic that I ended up buying and writing a book review of The Woman In The Window because I read the recent expose in The New Yorker of its author, A J Finn, Dan Mallory’s alias. Mallory’s life – and his web of lies, it turns out – could give his own characters a run for their money. Yet, it said to something interesting to me about a reader’s, or perhaps even my own, psychology. Finding out about Finn’s duplicity: a fake doctorate from Oxford, his fabrication of life-threatening brain cancer and parental deaths, did not make me want to read The Woman In the Window on its own, but it did spark a sense of intrigue: where did Finn end and his deceptive characters begin? Would reading The Woman In The Window be more than just suspenseful entertainment, in the vein of Gillian Flyn’s Gone Girl or Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train? A quick plot synopsis: alcoholic woman, traumatic event, window, and the promise of lots of twists, was all it took for me to be heading over to Amazon’s Kindle store and start downloading the title. I could have waited to buy a physical copy, but who can wait for that when there’s a novel promising the good stuff, and promising it now?

My first impression of the novel was that I liked it. The combination of the old and the new worked well: the modern New York City, bright, bustling, full of almost unbearable sound and sensation. And then Anna Fox’s world: unbearable –unbearably quiet – and utterly alone, her days filled with vials of merlot and old movies. Anna’s love of film noir – she devours everything from Hitchcock’s Vertigo to Otto Preminger’s Laura – gives us a taste of what it’s like to be trapped in Anna’s head, as she lives through fantasy – a brief respite from reality. But Anna is no ordinary person – a former child-psychologist, turned agoraphobic, Anna is stuck – not just inside the house, but inside her mind. Her mind is clearly a brilliant one, but one that may also send her over the edge, into a pit of endless despair. It’s only when the Russell’s move in across the road that Anna’s life is injected with some intrigue: a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Anna loves to watch them through her window, and with her zoom camera in hand, drip-feeding her fragments of their life, she soon learns all about them. Mrs Russell, she learns is having an affair. Their son, Ethan, a beautiful and sensitive teenager, spends his time in solitude in his room.

After a merlot-fuelled bonding session with Mrs Russell, Anna begins to undress many of the Russell’s problems – the way Mrs Russell feels trapped, and, like Anna, longs for a friend, her worries about her son, and her husband’s ferocious, unpredictable temper.
Everything changes when, a few days later, she spies the Russell’s arguing through her window. She sees the image of a woman – Mrs Russell – with a knife inside her. Then, almost as though she never existed at all, Mrs Russell disappears. Or, at least, the Mrs Russell that Anna befriended does. In her place is a new Mrs Russell, dark, rather than blond, sleek, refined, and practically hostile towards Anna. Who is this woman? What’s happened to the other Mrs Russell? And is Anna’s vision real, or simply the delusions of an insane mind? This may be where the questions begin, but we have to wait until the end of the novel to find all the answers.

The Woman In The Window is in many ways a sleek and intriguing thriller. The language is so vibrant you can easily get lost in it – ‘The buildings loom impossibly tall, thrusting like fingers into a rinsed-blue sky above’; ‘Beyond the window branches stir, shedding leaves like embers; they spark against the glass, fly away.’ Finn’s style, though sumptuous and dazzling, does feel slightly over-written. There were times I had to resist the urge to shout: ‘Just get on with it!’ as Finn treated us to yet another: ‘long pause’ before the character decided to do or saying something that had a hope of keeping us readers hooked for another chapter. For the most part though, Finn’s setting in Anna’s oldie-worldie vision of New York – complete with spying neighbours, abundant beauty, and seemingly endless reels of black-and-white classics – compliments the ornate style.

The character of Anna Fox is also an interesting one to consider. Being stuck in Anna’s head is actually an enthralling place to be. Not just because of her insight, or intelligence – but because there are times when we see flickers of the woman she used to be. Despite, or perhaps because of, her mental illness, Anna can be razor-sharp and intuitive. It’s the moments that she spends alone, truly contemplating the state of her life, and feeling her pain (sans Merlot) that we start to feel close to her. But these moments are few and far between. Although Anna is, on the one hand, everything we need in a heroine: both strong and fragile, smart, occasionally witty, and tenacious, I never really felt myself pulling for her. My emotional investment in her as a character was limited to these fleeting moments, and I found myself much more interested in how the plot was unravelling and the whodunit element of the story than Anna’s well-being. There are also a few odd plot developments – Anna’s one-night stand with her tenant, who she barely exchanges a word with aside from when she requires him as a handyman, feels unnecessary and almost entirely pointless.

The big ‘twist’ at the heart of The Woman In the Window and the reason behind Anna’s torment, can be guessed by the canny reader within the first few chapters, but its predictability adds a poignancy to the moment of revelation.

Less predictable, at least for me, was the twist involving the crime at the centre of Anna’s new obsession: the apparent murder of Anna’s neighbour, as seen by Anna through her bedroom window: her spyglass to the outside world. Yet it’s during the novel’s final act that the action picks up a pace – we have the unmasking of an unlikely killer, a rooftop chase, and a conclusion that’s both satisfying and haunting. Whether The Woman In The Window will maintain its hype, securing the accolades of its contemporaries, remains to be seen. Like Gone Girl and The Girl on The Train, The Woman In The Window is getting the Hollywood treatment. With a glittering cast that includes Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Gary Oldman, and with the period-piece connoisseur, Joe Wright, sitting in the director’s seat, The Woman In the Window film is sure to generate plenty of buzz, especially given that its release date places it in the prime position for award season. How Hollywood, following its recent public disgraces, will react to adding another controversial figure in the form of AJ Finn to its mix, is yet unknown. But one thing is guaranteed: the name AJ Finn, and his alluring debut, The Woman In The Window, will remain on reader’s lips for a long time to come.

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