This review contains spoilers
This is an ARC review of debut author Fiona Barton’s The Widow, which releases February 16, 2016.
It seems these days every psych-suspense novel attempts to recreate the same impact as Gone Girl. This brings me to Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, which makes an albeit admirable effort to read like its literary predecessor. Just like A.S.A. Harrison‘s The Silent Wife and Paula Hawkins‘ The Girl on the Train, both of which proved to be superb standalone in their own right, I can’t say that I’ve read another book that could challenge the masterful hand of Gillian Flynn.
In the last few years, I’ve grown attached to the new rise of twisted marriage plot stories like the one’s aforementioned. So when I was handed this ARC of The Widow a few weeks ago I couldn’t wait to see what it really had to offer because my co-worker informed me that it read a lot like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Of course, these comparisons are becoming more and more redundant, with every year bringing a new brood of thriller books with it in hopes of replicating Gone Girl‘s impact. Nonetheless, I was sold on this one.
Cutting straight to the chase, Barton’s debut starts off really strong with its plethora of suspicious, complicated and unlikable characters who are webbed together by the sudden disappearance of little Bella on October 2, 2006. Like her literary forerunners, the book bounces between narratives from different characters, dates and timelines stamped for importance, while taking its readers through the highs and lows of the supposed disappearance that has shaken rural England.
While I haven’t found abduction stories to be interesting in the past (probably because this was my first one?), Barton has a way of commanding her readers to join in on the chase and so it really feels like we’re in on this quest to find this little girl who’s gone missing for nearly five years. Along the way, themes of anonymity, secrets and many, many loose ends get vanish into thin air. Ironically, so did my interests with The Widow.
Speaking of loose ends, I have a bone to pick with Barton and her negligence to examine other suspects in the book. The entire novel focuses on Glen Taylor, the man which we come to know has a rather gross infatuation with child pornography, and ultimately makes him the prime suspect in the investigation. But what about all the other shady characters who were just as strange as Glen? Barton fails to analyze characters that seemed just as brow-raising, like Mike Doonan for instance.
If you can remember, at the end of Chapter 12, Mike has a ghastly monologue about his own illicit interests (with kiddie-porn?) — I cannot be the only one who remembers there being something really creepy about Mike having kept a weird blue portfolio with certain unknownables, for lack of a better word. I’m not sure what edition you have but here’s an excerpt from on page 80 in Chapter 12 that really stuck out to me, and frustrated me even more that it was never addressed throughout the entirety of the book:
Too crippled for porn. He laughed to himself—his painkillers making him light-headed and giddy. That’s tragic. He opened the door of the gray metal cabinet and pulled the battered-looking blue folder off the top shelf. The corners of the photocopies had become dog-eared with use, and the colors were beginning to fade. He’d bought them from another driver, a bloke who drove cabs down on the coast and sold his stuff from the boot of his car. Doonan knew his pictures by heart: the faces, the poses the domesticity of the backgrounds—living rooms, bedrooms, bathrooms.
Granted, you’ll argue that Detective Bob Sparkes wasn’t around for Mike’s disclosure (obviously) since it happened after he left. But wait, let’s fast-forward to when Kate is made aware that there was another driver other than Glen making deliveries in the area where Bella was supposedly taken, whom she discovers is Mike. She pens Mike’s address down as a cliffhanger that led me to believe that she would grill Mike in her following chapter; that happens on September 17, 2008 towards the end of Chapter 31 (page 205).
So can someone please explain to me why it isn’t until Chapter 35 we learn Kate is finally getting around to interrogating Mike in December 2009—almost an ENTIRE F—ING YEAR LATER?! That makes absolutely no sense at all! Do you know how much time that allows Mike to get away with his scheme(s)? Not to mention, three years passed since Bella was last seen, so why are the townspeople and the authorities so adamant to pin charges on Mike? At that point, I realized we were dealing with a lazy, fruitless investigation. And what sort of reporter lets go of a lead like that for an entire year? I’m sorry, but I felt like Barton dropped the ball on this one.
The only explanation I have for that ball-drop is that Barton is planning some sort of continuation of this series, much like how famed author Tana French has with her Dublin Murder Squad franchise. Now that would be VERY INTERESTING! Not to mention, it would also make up for my resentment toward Barton if she were to bring these characters back for another revisiting. I would love to see something like that.
Does anyone have an explanation for any of this, or am I misunderstanding something? I just thought Mike’s reentry in the investigation could have made for the story having a better, less-than obvious ending. I waited almost 200 pages before things started to pick up speed, which was incredibly generous of me since this is only her debut.
From that point, the book literally falls off the brink of suspense; there’s literally no page-turning qualities left once you’ve reached Chapter 30, when we finally learn Dawn’s connection to her daughter’s abductor in the first place. At that point, you know where the story is about to go, even when you hope it woudn’t have been so painfully obvious to what’s going to happen. The storyline is forced, contrived and has no cliff-hanging momentum anymore. Which sucks because I really wanted to enjoy this book, but the author gives us way too much information, too much disclosure, and leaves little room for doubt and interpretation.
Even with that being said, this is only Barton’s first novel. And despite the lack-luster plot twist that felt more like the book was driving in reverse, The Widow was not bad at all. In fact, Barton’s best trait is how she sculpts her characters, namely Jean. While Jean isn’t like Amy Dunne (Gone Girl) at all, she has that same fragile quality that seems so taken for granted in today’s suspense literature until you notice she’s quite calculating. Barton’s book nods more to Jodie Brett in The Silent Wife than anything, which is exactly why I couldn’t put this one down. However, I don’t believe it’s fair to position this work next to Gone Girl.
But as I said, this is only her first. And I remember not liking Flynn’s first two novels. I believe Barton’s only just getting her feet wet, and this is an impressionable debut. I’ll be poised and patient for more reads from this talented up-and-comer.