In the past few years, it’s become almost impossible to publish a female-driven psychological thriller without invoking the name of a certain twisty literary phenomenon. (Apparently, the first rule of Gone Girl Club is: Never stop talking about Gone Girl.) But Barton’s debut, already a best-seller in her native U.K., might have more of a right to the comparison than most. Like Gillian Flynn’s 2012 blockbuster—and its closest successor, Paula Hawkin’s The Girl on the Train—The Widow is both a taut reconstruction of a crime and a ruthless examination of marriage, told from the multiple viewpoints of not-always-reliable narrators.
The titular widow is Jeanie Taylor, a childless fortysomething housewife who has spent most of her adult life in the margins, a meek little moon orbiting her much shinier husband. Glen Taylor is clever and handsome and fit and, by the end of page 3, flattened by an oncoming bus: “He was there one minute, giving me grief about what sort of cereal I should have bought,” Jeanie marvels, “and the next, dead on the road.” It may have been an accident, but nobody (including his outwardly grieving spouse) is sad to see him go. Because by the time he meets his fate, the Taylors have become pariahs, hounded by the tabloids and shunned by their neighbors for the crime Glen has been accused of: abducting a ponytailed blond toddler named Bella from her front yard to satisfy his secret sexual urges, hidden until then in the dimmest corners of the Internet. Though the charge is dismissed for lack of evidence, his death freshens interest in the case, and the focus falls—not surprisingly—on the woman who knew him best. Now that he’s gone, will she continue to play the loyal wife? Or does she have a new story to tell?
Switching between various vantage points—The Reporter, The Detective, The Mother—and hopscotching across timelines, Barton skillfully loops her narrative noose. The big reveal, when it comes, isn’t exactly a lightning bolt; her payoffs are far less showy than Gone Girl’s dazzling, slippery tricks. Instead, The Widow is the kind of book you can zoom through on a long flight or a lazy Sunday: a smartly crafted, compulsively readable tale about the lies people tell each other, and themselves, when the truth is the last thing they really want to know. B+