Fiona Barton’s debut novel The Widow echoes Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls, Stephen King’s A Good Marriage, and Lisa Lutz’s upcoming The Passenger. How well do we know anyone, especially those closest to us? How well can we know ourselves?
In The Widow, a kid was kidnapped. Years ago now, back in 2006, a toddler, Bella, disappeared from her yard when her mom looked away.
Now, it is 2010. Our namesake widow, Jeanie Taylor, is grieving the loss of her husband, Glen. Reporters are knocking at her door. Glen’s death matters because he was the main suspect in Bella’s kidnapping and assumed death. The courts never proved him guilty. Jeanie always stood by his side.
The story of then and now, the desperation of the kidnapping and the slow burn of the time to come after, is told through alternating perspectives: the widow, the reporter, the detective, the mother, etc.
Critics (and publicists) are hailing The Widow as the new Gone Girl. So many things have been hailed the new Gone Girl that it seems like a blanket announcement used for a new thriller with an unreliable female protagonist. So is The Widow the new Gone Girl? I would say it is, as much as The Girl on the Train was before it. It takes risks, but only in its muted sensibilities. With all of Gone Girl‘s dark exploration, The Widow edges just a bit darker, pushing towards the mind of a (potential) pedophile and the woman who may or may not love him.
An important thing to remember about Gone Girl is that Gillian Flynn’s narrator was so unreliable (spoiler alert) that some of the book was a lie. The language, the tone, the action itself. This is wonderful for a twist, but difficult to do without a dramatic plot device to rely upon. Gone Girl relied on a planted diary, and in many ways it was just a new version of S.J. Watson’s thriller Before I Go To Sleep, which relied on diaries and (the more dramatic) amnesia. This desire for a twist so big it can’t be plotted within a traditional narrative, post-Gone Girl, has caused authors to push further, and brought us the alcoholic blackouts of The Girl on the Train, a diary-in-reverse in the miraculously appearing novel of Disclaimer, and amnesia post-accident of In a Dark, Dark Wood. But The Widow reminds us that in our post-Gone Girl world, we don’t need our thrillers to come with wilder and wilder surprises each time, girls bopped on the head and blinded to the truth until the last pages. Barton drops smug, unpleasant hints of an ugliness beneath the surface throughout the novel, and it still chills the spine.
The Widow is intentionally rigid and tightly wound, like each of the personalities in the novel which have been so affected by the crime, and it doesn’t deviate from this uncomfortable structure. Where Gone Girl bent full in, giving us all the emotion, The Widow pulls back, reminding us just how much emotion lies beneath the surface, and just how much society demands us to hide.
In a world drowning in advertisements of perfect women, airbrushed and smiling, the popularity of this sort of monster-in-disguise book makes sense. We aren’t all closet psychopaths, of course, but I think we all feel a dissonance between what exists in private and what pop culture suggests we should look like, act like, and feel like.
Whether or not The Widow reaches Gone Girl-level hysteria, this is a thriller that demands attention.