Book review

‘The Woman in the Window’ is a worthy successor to both ‘Gone Girl’ and ‘The Girl on the Train’

Memorable protagonist with psychological problems meets crime viewed through window. Bring on the twists

It would indeed be a novelty for a psychological thriller not to be pitched as “twisted”, with an unreliable female character at its heart, and in the same breath, be called the next Gone Girl. AJ Finn’s The Woman in the Window – already a New York Times bestseller a month since its release, preceded by a film deal with Fox – has been referred to as all of the above. Frankly, all this hard-sell can be a bit off putting – how many “next Gone Girl”s can there be?

The Woman in the Window, thankfully, unfolds with enough originality of its own – ironically, through some crafty nods to film noir and the very new-age bestsellers it is being compared to – while managing to go beyond the clichés of the genre in a post Gone Girl literary world. To be sure, The Woman in the Window may never have been written if Gone Girl hadn’t come along, followed closely by The Girl on the Train. The man behind the pseudonym AJ Finn is Dan Mallory, a long-time crime fiction books editor, who wrote in secret for a year in his one-room apartment in Chelsea, New York, inspired as he was by the success of Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins, as it became clear the genre wasn’t merely a passing fad.

It was in his apartment in 2015, as he sat recovering from a wave of depression, that the idea for such a book dawned. As he watched Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 Rear Window, Mallory found himself glancing through his own window at a woman in a town home across the street. “Voyeurism is timeless,” Mallory remarked in an interview while talking about the realisation that led to The Woman in the Window, a title in which he specifically sought to not “infantilise” the woman at its centre as a “girl”, going against the trend.

The set-up

Certainly, the well-scripted homage to Hitchcock’s delicious cinema and other worthy films of the genre – Rear Window, Shadow of a Doubt, Gaslight, and in flashes, Vertigo, even Psycho, by suggestion – is what fuels The Woman in the Window, setting up its protagonist’s personality, heightening the tension and offering narrative clues. Instead of a hero with a broken foot, here we have 38-year-old child therapist Dr Anna Fox, a compulsive consumer of classic noir cinema and bottles of Merlot. Something terrible happened not long ago, and now she is crippled with the anxiety disorder agoraphobia, unable to step outside her posh four-storey Harlem home.

We’re told her husband, Ed, and eight-year-old daughter, Olivia, have moved out and that she relies on home delivery for all her daily needs. Flashbacks take us briefly outside the home, to what happened that led to Anna’s breakdown. In the mould of confined space as a device – something Hitchcock channelled to eerie effect – the physical and mental entrapment of Anna in her dimly-lit interiors creates a spookiness that leaps off the page for most part.

Her windows are her doorway to the neighbourhood beyond her walls, providing some relief from her mundane routine, as she spies on her neighbours new and old, often through her Nikon D5500, zooming in, snapping pictures. Since it is 2018 and we are not in a classic noir frame, there is also the internet and her iPhone through which she keeps some connections alive. Google helps further her spying habits and allows her to spend a part of her grief-filled days logged in on an Agora support group, playing chess and even briefly flirting with the idea of being on Tinder.

The characters

In person, we don’t meet many characters. There’s David, the dashing tenant living in her basement, Bina, her physiotherapist, and fleeting conversations with her family and psychiatrist. We get to know Anna only through her own voice. Then she meets the woman from next door, Jane Russell and her teenage son Ethan, who uncorks Anna’s soft, protective, therapist side. As the fog seems to lift, it all comes crashing down again when she spies Jane, over at the Russells’ home, being stabbed. She assumes it is her husband, Alistair, who is the murderer.

Enter Detective Little. Anna’s story doesn’t add up, it appears, as Little gently pokes holes in what she has told us so far. She is a woman with an anxiety disorder, after all, one who mixes medication with an alarming quantity of wine, obsessed with suspense flicks to boot. On top of it, a discovery near the middle of the novel further alienates her from what may be real. Is she being gaslighted or is she imagining things?

Anna isn’t devious like Amy from Gone Girl or as hopeless as Rachel from Girl in the Train. Anna’s unreliability and self-destructive nature are different. This lends her a kind of vulnerability as well as a quiet strength. As a reader, you will possibly doubt her motivations in the taut, breathless opening scene, where Anna is settling in for an evening of Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (“I am the woman who viewed too much”, she quips, her wry humour often the only ray of light) when she spies, gleefully, her neighbour about to land in a hot mess. But on another day, when she thinks she has been witness to a murder, watching from the same window, Anna turns, at once, a sort of gatekeeper of justice, willing to fight alone.

The twist(s)

For a book that begins with crisp, punchy turns that have the ability to knock the wind out of you, relying more on clever sentence structuring than action to crank up the tension, the pace starts to sag early on. Since Finn works with very few characters and a very specific setting, once you are well-acquainted with Anna’s claustrophobic world, the wait till the central crime begins to test your patience. The pace picks up midway, when you begin to feel Anna’s pain, her loss of love, her loneliness, her self-doubt and her madness, the extent of which is something that unravels gradually, shifting gears in the climax.

Some of the plot surprises are suitably unpredictable, changing the tone of the novel as we zigzag through the mystery, but a big one feels like a bit of a cop-out, too convenient and easy to sniff from a distance, especially if you’re familiar with a certain template of whodunits. It also makes you wonder: did Finn rely too heavily on his personal passion for the genre to get caught in a series of ode after ode?

It’s fun while it lasts, though, all the referencing, with cinema and real time suspense blending seamlessly, to create some heady scenes. Would readers not tuned into Hitchcock’s best find it as trippy? Perhaps not. But then Finn’s best offering remains Anna Fox, a worthy protagonist who will linger. In a good way. The Woman in the Window is obviously excellent movie material: think several films within a film. Now the next guessing game: who will make a great Anna Fox on screen? One hears Cate Blanchett and Amy Adams have already expressed interest. Our money’s on Blanchett.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.