The blockbuster Girls of fiction have become so familiar by now that naming them sounds like an incantation, or a game card from Clue (Gone… …on the Train …With the Dragon Tattoo!). Like most literary trends — Jane Austen zombies, adult coloring books — their influence will fade eventually. But until then, every novel with a knife-edged plot and an unreliable female narrator bears the burden and gift of association — including two that land this month with the full force of the Girl Industrial Complex behind them: A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window and Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s The Wife Between Us.
Window brings a stronger pedigree — translations slated in 36 languages, glowing blurbs from Gillian Flynn, Ruth Ware, and Stephen King — and is easily the better book, though it’s hard not to sense the slow creep of genre fatigue seeping in. Like Paula Hawkins’ alcoholic antiheroine in Train, Finn’s Dr. Anna Fox is steering into the steep curve of a long downslide — a former child psychologist locked inside her own head (figuratively) and Harlem brownstone (literally) for nearly a year after an unnamed incident has left her too traumatized to leave the house. In the age of Seamless, at least, almost anything can be summoned to her door: food, physical therapy, the bulk-purchase bottles of merlot that are usually uncorked by breakfast. To fill the days, she watches her beloved film noir DVDs on repeat, counsels fellow phobics in chat rooms, and trains her Nikon on the neighbors — specifically, a young family just moved in across the street: the breezy, free-spirited Jane, her aloof husband Alistair, and their home-schooled teenage son Ethan.
Late one night, an ugly scene unfolds through Anna’s lens, or appears to: a sharp glint of silver, a bloody handprint on the windowpane, a silent scream. But how sure can she be, between the pills and the booze and the schisms in her head? Finn drops heavy bread crumbs for one big reveal, and leans hard, too, on the Hitchcock atmosphere that bleeds from Anna’s flat-screen into her real world. Even as her obtuse ramblings begin to wear thin, though, she feels vastly more real than any character in Wife — a slick puzzle box that seems to take the tropes of every Lifetime lady-in-peril movie and toss them in a Vitamix at a rough chop.
Ostensibly, it’s about two women: the wounded, furious ex Vanessa and her oblivious 27-year-old replacement Nellie, a preschool teacher so young and fresh it feels like the narrative paint on her has barely dried. The husband between them is Richard, a wealthy, controlling finance guy with a profile straight out of the American Psycho playbook (likes: long walks, fine wines, overexplaining classical music; dislikes: humor, empathy, outside friends). Vanessa refuses to be forgotten or ignored; Nellie clearly has a lot to learn. The brief chapters go by quickly, with one true hand grenade tossed in midway, but there’s something faintly airless in the machinations of its paper-doll players; trapped in their toxic pas de trois, they can’t quite seem to transcend two dimensions. And that, more than any cracked-mirror plot twist or picturesquely troubled Girl (why we still insist on calling grown women “girls” at all is a semantic cage match for another time) is what any truly memorable thriller needs to come alive on the page: the sense of real lives lived. Otherwise, it’s just another passing mystery.
The Woman in the Window: B+
The Wife Between Us: B–