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Review: 'The Woman in the Window' by A.J. Finn

Chicago Tribune

As the latest woman in fiction to spend a lot of time gazing out her window, Anna Fox is not as sympathetic a figure as, say, Emma Bovary. A child psychologist living alone in a restored 19th-century home in Harlem following the departure of her husband, she's too much of a voyeur for that. She'll spy on anyone through the Opteka lens on her Nikon D5500, which "doesn't miss much."

Still, you have to feel for Anna when schoolchildren burst into her house, set fire to the curtains of her third-floor bedroom and force her to jump out …

Wait. Stop. Sorry. That doesn't actually happen in "The Woman in the Window," one of the year's most highly touted thrillers. I've been reading so many mysteries featuring unreliable female narrators, I wondered what it would be like to be an unreliable reviewer. Now I know. Forgive me for letting you down.

The truth is — you can trust me on this — Anna looks out her window because she is physically unable to take so much as two steps out the door without grave consequences. Since her husband left, taking their daughter with him, she has suffered from a terrible case of agoraphobia.

When not spying on her neighbors, she gorges on classic suspense movies — most appropriately Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window." She watches these films, which she makes continual reference to, under the influence of meds mixed with excessive amounts of wine: a great formula for hallucinating, allowing the fake world of the films to intrude on what passes for reality.

Anna is shocked to see her tough-talking new neighbor, Jane Russell, fall over with a shiny object sticking out of her chest. She is sure that the woman with the 1940s sex symbol's name, whom she just befriended after Jane showed up in Anna's kitchen, was murdered by her abusive husband. But with no corpse to be found and another woman identifying herself as the suspect's wife — Jane Russell — the cops dismiss the claim.

Is Anna, like the Ingrid Bergman character she loves in "Gaslight," going crazy? Is what she is telling us true? What are we to believe, and what are we not to believe?

Like all high-concept thrillers, "The Woman in the Window" can afford nary a misstep, or risk falling apart like a tower of playing cards. To the author's credit, the plot is very nearly airtight. And for all the narrative effects, Finn never loses touch with the fear and insecurity of a woman who has suffered a great loss and feels abandoned and alone in the world.

Not that Anna ever gives in to her condition, resorting to a blunt Nora Ephron-like humor in commenting on the world outside. “He takes better care of his shoes than his face,” she says as she watches a male neighbor approach his house — where, not knowing he has come home early, his wife is trysting with their contractor. The book, which features a bunch of oddballs with hidden motives, including the young drifter renting her basement apartment and the troubled son of one of the Jane Russells, dips a bit when the laughs stop coming — a trap Hitchcock never fell into. But it's not a book you can easily put down.

A game of identity also is at play with the name of the author of "The Woman in the Window." A.J. Finn is a pseudonym for William Morrow executive editor Dan Mallory. His gender is strategically withheld from the author description, likely for marketing reasons, given the blockbuster success of “Gone Girl” and “The Girl on the Train” — both written by women.

One can only hope that "The Woman in the Window," which is in development as a film, fares better in Hollywood than those two novels. Though what could be more cinematic than the scene in which Anna grabs an AK-47 and ...

So sorry, there I go again. Well, at least I'm owning up to my problem, unlike all these misleading narrators.

Lloyd Sachs writes a regular crime fiction roundup for the Tribune.

By A.J. Finn, Morrow, 427 pages, $26.99

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