Review: THE WIDOW by Fiona Barton

TheWidowFionaBarton26999_fI 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 [2016]
ISBN 9780593076224
Length 313 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone?

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19 Responses to Review: THE WIDOW by Fiona Barton

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    I know precisely what you mean about characters who make you want to shake them, Bernadette. And those particular two buttons are some of mine, too. Hmm…….I’ve read and enjoyed books before where I though the character needed a good hard shake, but that’s rare. Still the plot aspects sound interesting (so does the look at journalism). I’ll have to think about this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. JJ says:

    Love a good book rant, hope you feel better having got this off your chest!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sarah says:

    I can understand this book isn’t for everyone. I liked the journalist best and it is she who appears on the next book, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed this one more than you did, but I enjoyed your cutting comments even more. I do take your points about various plot aspects. After I’d finished it I read a comment from someone that Jean acts like someone 20-30 years older than she is, and that struck me a lot. I hadn’t realized she was meant to be just in her late 30s. Anyway, I found it a good page-turning read, and that’s not to be sniffed at, even if questions and criticisms arose later. Like you, I thought a revelation or two wouldn’t have come amiss.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I thought Jean was much older too Moira – or that the book was set in a much earlier period – but at one point she says she is not yet 40 and somewhere else it actually gives her age as 37 though I’m not sure now where that was in the timeline.

      And I do agree the pages turned quickly 🙂


  5. Bill Selnes says:

    Been awhile since I read a Bernadette rant. I still trying to reconcile your ambivalence with the book with the rant. Are you softening a touch in your maturity?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know that I’m softening Bill…more that in this case it was really only the one character that pushed me into rant mode…and even though she is the titular character she is so insipid that she doesn’t actually take over the whole book and I was able to see some other aspects of it.


  6. kathy d. says:

    I agree with the rants. My reactions to this book are complicated. I also thought Jean was older or the book was from the 1950s before the women’s movement. But then I saw the dates.
    But I thought she was older.
    Yes, it was maddening how submissive and docile Jean is, and how she accepts her husband’s creepy and inadequate explanations of some of his behavior. Does she think it through? It made me wonder what kind of denial women are in who suspect their spouses of crimes, and what kind of fantasies they create in order to continue to live with them. So, the book haunted me.
    Also, I thought about real women who deal with and still live with husbands who abuse them and/or their children. Or the woman in my city whose CEO husband was indicted for running a computer child pornography ring. She filed for divorce the day after he was charged. So, did she suspect him? Was she in denial? Or was he so devious that she really knew nothing?
    Or the woman who saw her husband on a TV news show because he was videoed going into a building where a woman was assaulted. She called the police and identified him and then filed for divorced. Turns out he was a serial rapist. But she apparently didn’t know or was in denial.
    So, I thought long and hard about real-life situations. That was harder than reading the book, but it brought it up.
    And it is maddening that a woman in an advanced, prosperous country could be so docile. She reminded me of a friend’s sister-in-law who did everything her husband told her to do, get up and get him water, etc. She loved to read and had to lock herself in the bathroom to do so. She had done this throughout their many years of marriage.
    And, yes, the woman pining away because she didn’t have children is a bit outdated — but there is adoption and many children need homes. But then again why bring a child into the home of a sociopath?
    It’s a frustrating book and here I’ve gone on a rant, too. This book bothered me for two weeks, and the worst was thinking of real situations like this.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Feel free to rant away Kathy…I won’t feel so alone then

    I too wondered what real life situations in which this kind of thing happens would be like…how scary it would be to come to a slow realisation that someone you know and/or love is capable of such things…I just wish we’d gotten a better sense of the internal impact of all that on Jean. The only real world experience I have is that someone I know – an acquaintance really – became mentally unstable very quickly and killed his own son – even though this was not a case of long term behaviour his wife and close family are haunted by “what if I had noticed something, could I have prevented what happened…” type questions – it seems that Jean is not at all bothered by such thoughts.

    On the bright side I guess some reaction is better than nothing as far as reading goes, even if the reaction isn’t entirely positive 🙂


  8. kathy d. says:

    Well, I try not to read outside of my comfort zone, but sometimes I do and this is an example of one such book. But I think that it draws out such strong reactions and much discussion is a good thing. There are so many countries where women have to put up with abuse, and even in wealthier, more educated countries, this still exists.
    But I really tried to get into Jean’s mindset and it was hard. The minute the computer episode happened, and she believed the lies, I was thinking, OK, time to get out of here or at least contemplate options. She was obviously afraid of her spouse or she would have confronted him.
    I think back ti 1966 when I did voter registration in rural Vermont where I went to college. One woman said she had to wait till her husband came home and ask him about it — her own registration. I was shocked, but that was a reality check. But it was 50 years ago.
    And my friend’s sister-in-law who followed her husband’s orders for decades. But he wasn’t a psychopathic killer. But she was obedient.
    It’s a good thing we all have opinions on what we read. Sometimes other readers’ comments make me think of more aspects of a book. Even with the Lagercrantz book, it was good to have a discussion and understand why some readers thought it sacrilege.
    Intellectual challenges are an essential part of a thinking life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy it must have been hard to respond to that woman’s sentiment – but I’m sure you were polite – that view is more credible in 1966 than in 2010 when this book was set – given that nothing in the narrative that I noticed gave any reason why Jean was so passive even at the beginning of their relationship

      But yes discussion is generally a good thing – good to see differing options and be prompted to review one’s own ideas – even if they remain unchanged it’s good to keep questioning


  9. Great review! I love the passion that comes across clearly. I’ve tried to do something similar on my reviews and end up feeling like an idiot. I don’t have the passionate voice down yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Anonymous says:

    Well, I did ponder the view on the Lagercrantz book and I think I understand why some readers would be turned off on principle.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. kathy d. says:

    Anonymous is Kathy D. who thought more about Larsson and Lagercrantz.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Kathy.

      I think there’s many ways of seeing that issue but I have always felt really strongly that characters created by one person ‘belong’ to them in some way – probably ridiculous but I can’t help feeling like that.


  12. kathy d. says:

    I think I understand. You’re giving credit to the authors’ creativity and work.
    Well, I suppose it would be absurd if John Smith wrote “War and Peace” A Sequel.”


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