The Second Time Around

Up early to start another week of work, and I feel pretty good. Obviously, I would have preferred to stay in bed for another hour or so, but that’s just not in the cards so here I am, drinking coffee and writing a blog entry while I wake up.

I only managed to get two more chapters finished yesterday; I still call that a win, and am very happy to be nearly halfway through the manuscript. If I keep up the pace of one chapter per day, with more on the weekends, I’ll be finished long before the end of the month–which was the original goal, and then I can get back to the WIP.

I spent most of the day yesterday reading A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window, and I do have some thoughts on it. Was it a great work of art? No, it wasn’t even the best crime novel I read published in 2018. But it was good enough, you know, and it held my attention enough so I wanted to find out what was happening and what was really going on. But…it was also a very paint-by-numbers thriller; as though the author were simply ticking off boxes as he wrote the book. I’ll always wonder if my read of the book was influenced by the back story of the author–that piece in the New Yorker, in particular. It was very Hitchcockian in some ways, with nods to Rear Window and Shadow of a Doubt, among others, and nods to Gaslight and numerous other films…the great black-and-white noir thrillers of the mid-twentieth century. I’ve not read the other blockbuster novels of the last few years (The Girl on the Train and The Woman in Cabin 10) in whose footsteps this novel follows; I did read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl when it was first released (and before it became a national phenomenon) and greatly enjoyed it.

Here be spoilers.

Years ago Paul and I rented a film called Copycat, primarily because it starred two of our favorite actresses, Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver. It wasn’t a great movie, frankly; my primary takeaway from it was how frighteningly convincing Harry Connick Jr, could be a psychotic redneck, and how easy it was for him to look like one. But the premise was the Sigourney Weaver character was a top psychologist whose work focused on serial killers. She’d written several books, toured the country giving lectures, etc. She then became the target of a serial killer who attended one of her lectures and almost succeeded in killing her in the rest room. The result of the attack left her agoraphobic; unable to even go into the hallway outside of her luxurious apartment. Her primary connection with other human beings was through the Internet. Holly Hunter played a police detective whose partner was played by the young and adorable Dermot Mulroney; there’s another serial killer loose in San Francisco, and of course they need the Weaver character’s assistance in catching the new killer, who is copying other serial killers.

The Woman in the Window‘s central character is an agoraphobic psychiatrist who cannot leave her house. And the similarities don’t end there. And once it is firmly established that the main character is agoraphobic, drinks too much, and is heavily medicated–sometimes taking too much of her medications–the reader knows, of course the finale of the story will require her to face her demons and go outside. Likewise with The Woman in the Window, you know the agoraphobe is going to have to conquer her fears and go outside–most likely to escape the killer–and yes, like Chekhov and the gun in act one, Our Determined Heroine must go out in the scary outdoors to escape/save herself from the killer…which also helps to kill the suspense. Plus, at the very end it’s the third time she’s had to go outside during the course of the novel; with each time played up for maximum psychosis/drama.

There are the requisite surprise twists, of course–checking off those boxes!–and Finn does an excellent job of portraying the neurotic, unreliable narrator. The biggest strength of the book is, of course, the portrayal of someone whom no one believes. This is a trope, perhaps long-forgotten, of the romantic suspense queens of back-in-the-day (Dorothy Eden, Victoria Holt, Phyllis A. Whitney–check out An Afternoon Walk or Kirkland Revels or Spindrift for better examples of the trope) although I suspect Mr. Finn was more influenced by Rosemary’s Baby than anything else, since it’s brought up several times during the course of the book.

That’s another thing with the book that kind of bothered me; the main character, Anna, is a huge fan of classic black-and-white suspense/noir films, so the movies are frequently used–by her and Finn–to explain behavior and help her figure out what’s going on (although the big breakthrough comes courtesy of Vertigo–which is a color film, despite her constantly extolling the virtues of black-and-white); so the movies are used as a kind of shortcut. It struck me as, well, a little indulgent; a shortcut for authorial laziness…rather than getting into what she’s thinking or feeling, the reader gets references like “I feel like the girl in Shadow of a Doubt, bored until her uncle comes along for a visit and upends her world”–which also requires an explanation of the movie…where it may have probably just been easier to simply go into what she’s feeling?

I kept turning the page, though, because I did want to know the answer to the puzzle…but the book wasn’t satisfying, ultimately. I doubt very seriously that I would take the time to read another book by The Mighty Finn, because there wasn’t that usual sense of satisfaction I get when I finish a book I truly enjoyed.

But I can also see why Finn was given such a massive contract/advance, and why the book sold so well. It’s a very commercial novel, and as an acquiring editor, if it came across my desk I probably would have wanted to publish it as well. The way it’s written, the way it ticks over every box for a thriller–yes, it’s commercial, and congratulations to Mr. Finn for successfully cracking the code of how to write a commercial thriller.

And things are telegraphed–you know the skylight in her house is going to come into play at some point because it keeps being brought up, repeatedly. So, when it’s time for the big confrontation with the killer, as they battle through her house and inexorably work their way up the stairs to the top floor, and she runs up on the roof to get away from the killer (again, a scene from Copycat), you know the skylight will be the key to her survival.

I’m not sorry I read it–don’t get me wrong. I also don’t know how much of my impressions of the book were colored and/or influenced by knowing the  back story of the author, and how the book came about. I don’t know if I would have been so critical going in without knowing about who A. J. Finn is, his own back story, and how the book actually was developed with the intention of being a bestseller….the book seemed cynical in some ways to me; but again, that may just be because I know the backstory.

And now, back to the spice mines.


One thought on “The Second Time Around

  1. I hate it when I’m reading a book and I know exactly where it’s going, that whole skylight thing, that’s irritating as hell.


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