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Friday, February 5, 2016

What I’m Reading: The Widow

Last week, I had the chance to attend a dinner with the author of the debut suspense novel The Widow by Fiona Barton. It was an intimate affair with Chicago area booksellers and librarians. I share this not to brag, but to make it clear from the outset that I received this book and a dinner from the publisher.

I was under no obligation to review the book; in fact, I wasnt even asked to read it before dinner, but I requested an ARC because I wanted to read the book before meeting Barton. And boy, am I glad I did because listen up library workers, The Widow will be a HUGE hit with your patrons. It is everything they love in a well told, low violence, compelling suspense a la Mary Higgins Clark [and we know how immensely popular she is].

Today, I have a review so you know what to expect and so you can start book talking it to patrons ASAP. The book will be released on Tuesday [2/12/16].  On Monday, I will also have an interview that Barton did with me specifically for my library worker audience in case todays post doesn’t convince you.

Becky’s Soundbite Review:
The Widow is a unique take on the popular, multiple narrator, suspense tale. Glen, a man who was tried but never convicted in the murder of a 2 year old girl, yet infamous throughout England because of it, is hit by a bus and dies. Jean, his widow, is now free of the nightmare her life had become. With multiple narrators, most notably Jean, Kate, a newspaper reporter, and Sparkes, the detective whose inability to convict Glen still haunts him, the mystery behind the unsolved story of what happened to Bella is satisfactorily unraveled at a compelling pace. But it is the unique frame, with Jean taking control of her narrative that allows this suspense novel to rise above a crowded field. Readers will enjoy the twists and turns of the mystery as they look over their shoulders at their own significant others, wondering what secrets lie beneath the surface.” [40 seconds]
This is standard suspense told from a unique point of view.  The publisher is trying to market it as psychological suspense because the widow herself is unreliable, as she is holding things back from us. But, her unreliable narrator status is not a surprise. She makes this status clear to the reader from the start as do the two other main narrators. Just having an unreliable narrator does not make something psychological suspense.  I recently led an entire meeting on this topic. Use these links for the short version or the long version of this discussion.

But this quibble of mine does not make the book bad. Rather, I loved how it was a unique way to tell a more traditional suspense story. This is why patrons will love it. The tension is not as high as some psychological suspense-- tension that can be oppressive and off-putting to some readers, but it is a more complex story than most standard suspense. There is plenty of heart here for just about every popular fiction reader.

The concept of letting Jean tell the story of Bella’s kidnapping and murder from the wife's perspective made for a great reading experience.  The details Jean shares about her life, her marriage, and the entire investigation not only informed the plot and moved the mystery part forward, but it also added intrigue to the story.  It made me think about other suspense novels. How would those books have been different if instead of getting in the killer’s head I was able to be in the wife’s instead? This unique point of view drives the story and keeps you turning the pages just as much as the desire to see whodunnit.

But it is not just Jean who is strong here.  All of the characters are well drawn and sympathetic. Kate, Sparkes, and even Bella’s mom all enter the story in stereotypical fashion, but they quickly becomes more nuanced.  It felt like Barton wanted to lull us into complacency-- okay now enter stereotypical newspaper reporter, now detective, later grieving mother.-- before showing us what for.  This is a debut novel, so Barton is playing on our bias to not expect as much. But we should know better from a book that begins with the villain being hit by a bus. As a former newspaper reporter, Barton knows how to draw readers in. She catches our attention by introducing overused characters and tropes, but then employee them in new and interesting ways. It was really quite refreshing and fun [well, as fun as reading about a child murderer can be, but you know what I mean].

Finally, Barton’s journalist eye also comes out in how real this story feels.  It is very chilling-- this normality in the face of the horrible things that are happening. Her descriptions of people’s homes, their day to day actives, the minutia of their suburban lives adds so much depth to the people and events in this novel. 

The Widow will become one of my sure bet suspense titles for many years to come much like all of the readalike options listed below have come to be. Start taking holds now.

Three Words That Describe This Book: compelling, unique frame, multiple points of view

Readalikes: Fans of Mary Higgins Clark and/or the award named after her will love this novel. Click here for a full list of nominees and winners-- any author listed here is a good readalike option. This is my most used award list for finding readalikes. The Widow is suspense in the same vein of those who are considered for this award. However it is important to note that The Widow itself does not fit the requirements for this award but that is because of the unique frame of reference-- the widow is not self reliant, she is victim, and she does not solve anything herself, BUT the novel has the same feel and appeal as novels who are nominated for this award.

Two specific past winners of the Clark award who I immediately thought of as readalike authors are Lori Rader-Day and Sharon Bolton.  I know you have a lot of fans of these authors at your library. Give them The Widow. They will thank you.

The immensely popular Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is also a good option here. Both novels deal with a crime, secrets, and lies and tell the story through the lens of marriage and from multiple angles.  Both novels are also more complicated than they seem on first glance and are set in suburbia [and include details and issues specific to that setting].

My outside the box suggestion is by a male author-- The Last Child by John Hart. Both novels follow a missing child story, but it is the unique story telling perspective that will draw fans of one to the other.

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