Books

The Widow, Fiona Barton (Book Review)

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It seems these days every psych-suspense novel attempts to recreate the same impact as Gone Girl. This can especially be said about Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, which makes an albeit admirable attempt to read like its literary predecessor. Just like The Silent Wife and The Girl on the Train, both of which proved superb standalones in their own right, I can’t say that I’ve read another book that could challenge the masterful hand of Gillian Flynn.

Last year, I grew accustomed to this new rise of twisted marriage plot stories. So when I was handed this ARC of The Widow a few weeks ago, I couldn’t wait to see what it had to offer.

Cutting straight to the chase, Fiona’s debut starts off strong with its plethora of suspicious, complicated 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 while taking its readers through both the highs and lows of the kidnapping shaking rural England.

While I haven’t found abduction stories to be interesting enough to explore, Fiona has a way of commanding her readers to join in on the chase, and this quest to find a little girl whose gone missing for nearly five years. Along the way, themes of anonymity, secrets and many, many loose ends get lost in thin air, as did my interests as I proceeded with The Widow.

Spoiler Alert-ish: Speaking of loose ends, I have a bone to pick with Fiona and her negligence to examine other suspects in the book. The entire novel focuses on Glen Taylor, a man with a rather grossly-infatuation with child pornography(?), which makes him a prime suspect in the investigation. However, Fiona fails to analyze characters that seemed just as as questionable characters. Mike Doonan, especially.

If you can remember, at the end of Chapter 12, Mike has a ghastly monologue about his own illicit interests — am I the only one who remembers there being something Mike having kept a weird blue portfolio with unknownables? 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 in September 2008.

So can someone please explain to me why it is that only until Chapter 35, we learn Kate is finally getting around to querying Mike in December 2009, almost an ENTIRE YEAR LATER?! That makes absolutely no sense at all! Do you know how much time that allows Mike to get away with his scheme? 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 for an entire year? Does anyone have an explanation for any of this, or am I misunderstanding something? I just thought Mike’s reentry into the investigation could have made for the story’s less-than obvious ending, and the suspense this book severely lacked. I waited almost 200 pages before things started to pick up speed, which was incredibly generous of me since this is only her debut.

This book falls off the brink of suspense, and 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’re hoping it doesn’t become so painfully obvious what’s going to happen. The storyline is forced, contrived and has no cliff-hanging momentum. I really wanted to enjoy this book, but the author gives us too much information at the wrong time, and leaves little room for doubt that Mike may or may not be guilty.

Even with that being said, this is only Fiona’s first novel. Despite the laggy review, The Widow was not all bad. In fact, Fiona’s best trait is how she sculpts her characters, namely Jean. She has that fragile quality that seems oh-so taken for granted in today’s suspense literature, but then you notice she’s quiet and calculating, almost nodding to the wife in The Silent Wife. Still, 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 Gillian’s first two novels. I believe Fiona’s only just getting her feet wet, and this is an impressionable debut. I’ll be poised and patient for more reads from this up-and-comer.