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the woman in the window

10 november 2019

A.J. Finn's Woman in the Window is a very skillful, extremely popular psychological thriller that has drawn its share of envy and backbiting. Its author (a long-time editor really-named Dan Mallory) was subjected to a juice-filled exposé by Ian Parker in The New Yorker. The Woman in the Window novel has been dismissed as derivative, even part-plagiarized. It's a pretty good book for all the controversy, legitimately "unputdownable" as Stephen King, coining a word, dubbed it in a blurb.

Anna Fox can't leave her New York home thanks to post-traumatic agoraphobia (snowstorm, car crash). She spends her days drinking heavily, watching old noirs, and doing the Rear Window thing to her neighbors. Predictable consequences ensue.

Predictability is not a flaw here. The Woman in the Window is a self-aware genre novel where the reader's delight is not the potential plot directions themselves (each possibility is obvious enough), but trying to foresee which set of obvious plot twists lies ahead. Anna Fox's observations and fabulations incorporate bits of just about every bit of Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, and Otto Preminger she's ever seen. Vertigo and Laura feature heavily, so we know that Anna will be drawn to a mysterious woman who may not be herself and may not even exist. Gaslight is a frequent touchstone, so the reader knows from the jump that the gaslight is on – but how perversely is Anna gaslighting herself?

Well, it all works out, or doesn't. And when it all seems to work out 4/5 of the way through, you know that the last 20% of the novel is going to undergo a severe twist where nothing you've taken for granted, or learned to accept, will hold true.

Along the way, the fictional New York that Finn/Mallory creates is hardly verisimilar (it seems to consist of a few single-family homes, some deserted open space, and a single coffee shop, and everybody knows everyone else). But in a novel that is deliberately crafted from bits of other highly-artificial fictions, does verisimilitude matter? Ian Parker's gravest accusation is that much of the set-up is borrowed from a 1990s thriller called Copycat, which, unlike Finn/Mallory's many other precursors, goes unacknowledged. Perhaps he thought that tipping to copying a film called Copycat would be superfluous. In any case, I don't think the theft rises even to Life of Pi levels of concern. And Copycat in turn draws from the same noir inheritance as The Woman in the Window.

Finn/Mallory can also be accused of plundering a genre of women's fiction: the "Girl" novel staked out by Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins, and doing so in a calculating, even cynical way. But of course at times it seems as if publishers have done nothing much for the past half-decade except plunder the "Girl" genre, with its blurry cover illustrations, its unreliable narrators, and its middle-class secrets gone horribly wrong. Finn/Mallory has just done a better job of plundering than most of the knockers-off. For my money, The Woman in the Window is considerably better-written than Hawkins' Girl on the Train itself, a novel that I found plodding and over-detailed. And Gillian Flynn was among the most enthusiastic blurbers of Finn's book. Wherever he learned how to set up a fictional premise – The Woman in the Window is his first novel – Finn/Mallory executes his plan here with confidence and panache.

But I wouldn't make any great artistic claims for The Woman in the Window, either. In a genre where Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith are the classics, Finn/Mallory is a distant imitator. Ultimately Anna Fox consists of trauma refracted through altered perceptions, and doesn't show many depths or dark corners herself. Ultimately, the evil in the novel just floats in from the exterior, as in Michael Connelly's similarly ambitious Poet. But heck, for a book to pass the weekend on airplanes – or locked in your Harlem townhouse – The Woman in the Window is good stuff.

Finn, A.J. The Woman in the Window. 2018. New York: Morrow [HarperCollins], 2019.