I love mystery novels, even if there are frequently things about them that irritate me to no end. We heard about one of them when I reviewed All the Beautiful Lies and now, with The Woman in the Window I have another one.
Publishing, like filmmaking, loves spotting trends. When something succeeds, suddenly scores of similar books pop up to cash in on what readers liked about the first one. Recently, the Fifty Shades books inspired a new take on romance novels and The Girl on the Train put a fresh spin on the mystery genre. Going deeper: both of these were inspired by other popular works–Fifty Shades starting life as Twilight fan fiction (no, really) and Girl on the Train capitalizing on the success of twisty bestseller Gone Girl. If you really try to sort out the ripple effect of inspiration, the publishing world starts to look like an M.C. Escher painting.
The Woman in the Window feels like a direct descendant of The Girl on the Train, and how you respond to it depends on how much you prize originality. Also on how important good writing is, but that’s an argument for later. Girl is about an unreliable narrator who is also an alcoholic woman suffering a psychological break after the dissolution of her marriage, who witnesses (or thinks she witnesses) something shocking. Woman is about an unreliable narrator who is also an alcoholic woman suffering a psychological break after a traumatic event, who witnesses (or thinks she witnesses) something shocking. I’m not stretching here to prove a point: the plots are literally that similar.
To be fair, Woman adds a fresh coat of varnish by having the narrator’s psychological break exhibit itself in a different way. Girl‘s Rachel devolves into compulsive deception as she blearily goes about her old routine (including the titular commute into London), while Woman‘s Anna is stricken with agoraphobia (the inability to leave the house). Rachel’s break feels angry while Anna’s is defined by fear. To give Woman some credit, it does feel fascinating to climb into the head of someone with agoraphobia in response to trauma.
But even with these differences, the books have a definite sameness. Anger is part of Rachel’s compulsion but it’s also a way of stubbornly clinging to the past–she’s refusing to let go of her old routine as if that will give her her old life back. Anna’s compulsion stems from fear, but hers is also a way of clinging to the past–she watches old movies she and her husband used to watch and steadfastly refuses to interact with a world that has moved beyond the trauma she experienced.
For me, I just couldn’t get passed the feeling that I had already read The Woman in the Window several times over. I never felt into it because I knew exactly where it was going. So publishing world: let’s retire this trend of unreliable female narrators with alcohol problems. Not only is it boring, but it’s also insulting. Why don’t male characters in mystery novels seem to have these problems?
And then there’s the writing. Fluttery prose with unnecessarily complicated description is not a problem unique to the mystery genre (see my review of The Girls), but it is a problem when encountered. Flinn’s description constantly took me out of the book to wonder what the hell he was talking about. Remembering a day at the beach with her daughter, Anna describes her as “buttery with sunscreen.” A cat simply walking across the floor is described as “slithering.” Just how much of a shimmy is this cat putting into its steps? Is it trying to be a supermodel?
I was having such a hard time getting by all these issues that I skipped to the end, and wouldn’t you know it, I guessed all of the twists this book was trying to build to. That’s the other problem with relying on a formula: when everything is meant to be a surprise, nothing is surprising anymore.
I can see where plenty of people would still enjoy this book despite these flaws. If you are one of them, good for you. For those of you that are like me, let’s hold the genre to higher quality standards and keep looking for mystery novels with something original to say.