Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Book Review: The Widow
There’s a well-known saying that “Behind every successful man is a great woman.” A lesser-known, but just as important, saying is “Behind every psychopath is a woman who says she had no idea.” John Wayne Gacy, the BTK Killer, and Robert Lee Yates all committed their crimes while married and leading seemingly normal lives. After the horror and relief that followed these killers finally being caught, their wives became the center of attention. What did she know? When did she know it? How could she not know she was married to a psychopath?
In Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, the psychopath in question is Glen Taylor, and his unfortunate wife is Jean. As the novel opens, Glen has already been tried and convicted in the press over the disappearance of poor toddler Bella Elliott. However, the actual British justice system has thrown out the case, ruling that the police entrapped him in a chat room. When Glen is hit and killed by a bus four years later, reporter Kate Waters thinks Jean is finally ready to give that interview that points the finger at Glen. Now the world will know once and for all exactly what Jean knew and when she knew it.
Barton has given herself quite a challenge. For the novel to work, Jean has to be sympathetic, but in order to be sympathetic, she has to be in the dark about Glen’s double life. To be in the dark, she has to be a bit dim, and that makes her unsympathetic, or at least difficult for readers to identify with. As such, Jean is a hairdresser who married Glen at 19, and easily accepted Glen’s answers for why he was no longer working at the bank or why he needed to spend hours locked up alone with his computer when his new job was making deliveries. For the novel to deliver, Barton needs to show and develop Jean so that readers will understand her choices and even admit they would do the same in similar circumstances. I’m not sure Barton achieves that by the novel’s end.
Kate is the second part of the novel’s equation. When I took on this book, I inferred the bulk of the story would be the relationship between these two women. I expected more of a women’s fiction character-driven novel than a mystery. This assumption turned out to be wrong. Kate is a very good reporter. She has no problem manipulating Jean into signing an exclusivity agreement with her newspaper, or wearing her down so Jean ends up saying things she didn’t mean to. And Kate is driven equally by her desire to find Bella as she is to beat the newspaper across town. But I got no sense of who Kate was as a person beyond her reporter role. I’m not even sure whether she had a family.
Truthfully, the most dynamic character in the book is not a woman at all, but the man in charge of the investigation, detective Bob Sparkes. Bob is committed to finding Bella, and determined to nail Glen for the crime. When his case is thrown out of court, he’s devastated. Close to retirement, he lets the case affect his relationship with his wife. He is well-rounded, pro-active and sympathetic in a way that neither woman is.
Point of view is an issue. Not only are readers with Jean, Kate and Bob, but we also get a peek inside the head of minor characters. Unlike most mystery writers, Barton does not use POV to create questions of guilt. One character I’d liked as the real killer was absolved when Barton went into that person’s head. And when the killer is finally revealed, Barton does that through point of view, as well.
The Widow moves back and forth in time from Bella’s disappearance to Glen’s death four years later and Jean’s big interview. In between, Jean spends a lot of time in narrative and flashback going over her relationship with Glen, which began when she was seventeen. The bulk of the story, timewise, takes place in the days, weeks and months following Bella’s disappearance. We’re mostly in Bob’s point of view in these sections as he follows every lead to find the girl.
Because of this, the novel is much more about the mystery of Bella’s disappearance than the mystery of Jean’s knowledge. This surprised me, as I was expecting the guilt of the widow’s husband would be established so the story could firmly be about her. Instead, this is just as much Bob’s story as Jean’s. As mysteries go, it’s well-written – not on the same level as The Girl on the Train or Mary Kubica’s Pretty Baby, but a laudable first effort. But I was expecting something more like a Liane Moriarty tale, and it can’t be measured with that yardstick.
Despite its shortcomings, I enjoyed The Widow, and I’m hoping this book is the first in a string of many by Fiona Barton. There’s nothing more enjoyable for a reader than watching a writer grow and mature with each book, and I am confident Barton will follow that path.
Thanks to Berkley/NAL for the book in exchange for an honest review.