It must be exceptionally hard to be a debut thriller author at the moment. The current glut of psychological thrillers filling bookstore tables and supermarket shelves makes it a crowded marketplace and readers would be forgiven for getting a bit of fatigue when it comes to yet another ‘Girl’ or ‘Woman’ title in bold type against a moody backdrop. So it’s definitely worth noting when something genuinely gripping comes along and, for me anyway, A. J. Finn’s debut The Woman in the Window, certainly offered that.
Set almost entirely within one New York house, the novel’s protagonist is child psychologist Dr Anna Fox. Suffering from acute agoraphobia, Anna hasn’t set foot outside her house for the last ten months and she lives her life through a combination of the internet and her study window, self-medicating through her days on a dangerous combination of prescription drugs and alcohol. When new neighbours Alistair, Jane and Ethan Russell move in across the square, Anna is instantly drawn to them. Their picture-perfect family of three is an echo of the life that was once hers. But one evening a frenzied scream rips across the street and Anna witnesses something that no one was supposed to see. Now she must uncover the truth about what really happened. But even if she does, will anyone believe her? And can she even trust herself?
So far, so psychological thriller right? And indeed, the tropes are all present and correct in The Woman in the Window. There’s an unreliable female narrator with a hidden past, a sinister and controlling husband, an upper middle class domestic setting – heck there’s even a sexy handyman with a dark secret for that added frisson of romantic tension! So why have I chosen to review this specific thriller as opposed to any of the others currently gracing the shelves?
Mostly because I actually finished this one – and in 24 hours no less! I do really enjoy a good psychological thriller but some of the tropes of the genre have unfortunately started to become cliche. As a result, a lot of the thrillers I’ve read recently have been perfectly serviceable but just not doing anything that hasn’t been done before. Nothing wrong with that – if it isn’t broken, why fix it after all – but for a genre that relies on keeping the reader guessing, I have found myself a few chapters ahead of the characters on more than one occasion and there’s nothing quite as frustrating as mentally screaming “It’s him, he CLEARLY did it!” at your protagonist as she falls into bed with the serial killer.
And I’m not saying that doesn’t occasionally happen in The Woman in the Window – I don’t do spoilers in reviews but I’d figured out the root of Anna’s past trauma before it was revealed on the page (which doesn’t make it any less tragic by the way, she’s got justifiable baggage and the reveal is heart-breaking) and the subplot involving the sexy handyman doesn’t take much guessing either. But, for the most part, the main plot of this novel is deeply satisfying and with all the twists, turns and sinister goings on that you need to keep you turning the pages and guessing right up until the end.
Anna herself is also more than just your standard messed up psychological thriller heroine – yes, she has the traumatic past and the now fairly par-for-the-course alcohol issues (seriously, what is it with women in this genre and wine?) – but her former job as a psychologist is really important to the plot and adds more than just gloss to her character. Plus it’s really nice to see a woman in this genre who has (or at least had) a successful professional life that is an important part of her character development and psychological makeup. And Anna knows that she’s messed up – her inner monologue is definitely one of the best things about the book because, in her head at least, she’s sharp and funny and deeply intelligent and that really comes across on the page – if you met her in real life, you’d definitely want to sit down and chat to her over a coffee. It’s just that to the rest of the world, she’s become a crazy recluse who drinks wine like a fish and mixes her meds. And that comes across on the page too – when Anna doubts herself, we as readers doubt her and we understand why other characters doubt her too. Her voice is very well done and serious credit to the author for writing such a great female lead.
The supporting cast are also really well done. Yes there’s a few stereotypes in there (we’re back to to that sexy handyman again!) but the author is aware of and plays with these in interesting ways to really turn the plot on its head at the end of the book. Put it this way – that controlling husband? Bit of a surprise character in the end is all that I’m saying.
The book is also a fantastic homage to film noir – most people will probably have got the connection between the plot and the famous 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window (if you haven’t seen it, do – it’s brilliant) – and Anna herself if a big fan of black and white movies so there’s more than a few nods to the genre in the novel itself. But the Hitchcockian tone of isolation and intrigue created by Anna’s unique situation combined with a twenty-first century spin really does work and, just like Hitchcock’s famous film, it grips from the off and doesn’t let up until the finale.
Overall then this was definitely a riveting read that combines a taut and compelling narrative with a fantastic lead character. It’s not reinventing the wheel but The Woman in the Window is a polished and elegant example of the thriller genre that you can gulp down in one sitting and will keep you guessing right up until the end.