I will always think of this book as The Girl Whose Husband Fell Under a Bus. Though perhaps its main narrator – Jean Taylor – is not a girl and that’s why a Girl…title was eschewed. I don’t know what the magic cut-off age is but Jean is in her late 30’s. Otherwise the book fits the recently popular trend for suspense novels with multiple narrators, at least one of whom is a young-ish female who is at least partially unreliable and mostly unlikable.
And now for a warning: this review is going to come off more harshly than it ought to given that I didn’t actually hate the book but it can’t be helped: it hit a two of my ‘oh no not this again’ hot buttons. Neither of which has anything to do with my weariness over the whole Girl…phenomenon.
Firstly there is the character of Jean. She is insipid and weak and made me want to shake her long before her trouble started. She gets confused and dithery when confronted with anything more difficult than walking and breathing at the same time and says things like ‘my husband does all the paperwork’. I’m not suggesting she is not realistic – though in the 21st century I fervently hope she is (literally) a dying breed – but I am so over that shit. Not just because it is the complete opposite of my own personality (it is but many, many characters in fiction I love are wildly different from me) but because it makes me want to scream “thousands of women the world over have fought, died even, so that we could have our independence and you never even fucking tried.” I realise it is unreasonable, irrational even to react this way to a made up person but in my defence I do the same in real life to this particular kind of woman.
The other aspect of the book that made we want to scream is that, once again, a woman is depicted behaving badly* because of her inability to process the fact that she is, and will likely remain, childless. Again I’m not suggesting Jean’s anguish is unrealistic but it’s the third bloody book I’ve read this month (and we’re not even half-way through yet) in which this is a major plot point. Is there not something else to write about women in 2016 other than they are only good for child-bearing and if for some reason they can’t do that there’s a high probability they will go bonkers?
Deep breath time.
If you’re still with me after the rant I’ll attempt to put these biases aside and say something about the rest of the book. For what it’s worth. But remember I was seething at a made up person for most of the reading experience so it’s a fair bet my reactions are not as objective as they ought to be for review purposes.
The premise of THE WIDOW is simple and promising: Jean Taylor’s husband, Glen, is accused of kidnapping toddler Bella Elliot from outside her home. In parallel threads we learn about the Taylors’ lives before and during the furor over Bella’s kidnapping and the subsequent investigation and later how Jean handles things once her husband has died. Much of the story is told from Jean’s perspective but there are also chapters from a reporter’s point of view and some from the lead detective’s perspective also.
The element of this story that I found most engaging was the reporter Kate Waters and the insights her perspective offered into the grubby world of modern journalism. I thought there was an authentic flavour to this before I learned that Fiona Barton has been a journalist herself. With sentiments like this one
The Herald splashed the story over the first nine pages, pledging to bring Glen Taylor to justice and demanding that the Home Secretary order a retrial.
It was journalism at its most powerful, hammering home the message with a mallet, inciting reaction, and the readers responded. The comment sections on the websites were filled with unthinking, screaming vitriol, foul-mouthed opinion and calls for the death penalty to be reinstated. ‘The usual nutters’ the news editor summed up in morning conference. ‘But lots of them’.
it would be easy to scoff at the entire media industry but Kate is depicted as having qualms about the behaviour expected of her and her humanity reminds us that journalists are people too and are often a genuine avenue of hope and support for those experiencing life’s worst traumas.
Plot-wise the book was less successful. After a solidly page-turning start the last two thirds of the book were a bit flat for me because it didn’t really go…anywhere. I don’t mean there wasn’t a resolution (there was) but the journey there kind of meandered along without as much drama or insight as I’d have liked. There’s a couple living with enormous secrets at the centre of this novel but the issues that should inevitably flow from the revelation of those secrets are not explored in any depth. We never, for example, get any real sense of how Jean feels about living with Glen after she finds out what he has definitely done and learns what else police suspect him of. At some point she notices some odd behaviour but all she does is give it a name (‘his nonsense’) and goes back to cutting pictures of babies from magazines and putting them in scrapbooks. Would a better exploration of the ‘I lived with a madman‘ theme have been possible if Jean hadn’t been so pathetic? Or am I just being harsh, feeling as I do about her?
Given how I felt about Jean I somewhat surprised myself by finishing the book. But I think I truly kept expecting there would be something…more…just around the corner. On reflection I think the book could have done without the police perspective all together. Bob Sparkes – the lead investigator – is one dimensional and brings nothing new to the fictional detectives’ table and there were other ways to bring into the story the investigative elements that needed to come to light. If a third narrative voice was needed in addition to Jean’s and Kate’s perhaps an alternative – one of Glen or Jean’s parents perhaps – might have brought out some of the elements I thought missing instead of the run-of-the-mill ‘investigating is mostly laborious, unglamorous work’ stuff that Bob’s view provided.
Should you read the book or not? I don’t know. Not if you feel as I do about characters like Jean. It can’t be good for the blood pressure. If you’d like an alternative perspective before making up your mind head over to Crimepieces where Sarah Ward offers a much more rational response to the book.
*I use this term a little euphemistically as I don’t want to give away spoilers regarding what Jean may or may not be responsible for.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Random House 
Length 313 pages
Book Series standalone?