It’s good news when a debut novelist delivers the goods, and I’m happy to report that is the case with Fiona Barton and her first novel, “The Widow.” Barton is a veteran British journalist who has reported for the Daily Mail and other publications, so it comes as no surprise that her prose is deft and her story well told. What does come as a surprise is that her novel is also richly character-driven in a way that is both satisfying and engrossing.
The story is narrated primarily by Jean Taylor, an odd and introverted hairdresser who becomes a widow when her husband, Glen, is struck by a bus. Early on, Jean demonstrates what will become a characteristic lack of emotion when she describes Glen’s gruesome death: “He was there one minute, giving me grief about what sort of cereal I should’ve bought, and the next, dead on the road. Head injuries, they said. Dead, anyway. I just stood there and looked at him, lying there. People were running around finding blankets, and there was a bit of blood on the pavement. Not much blood, though. He would’ve been glad. He didn’t like any sort of mess.”
As that tone suggests, their marriage had become less intimate over time. And when the narrative jumps back to the period before Glen’s death, we learn more about their troubled relationship: “One of my ladies at the salon said all marriages ‘settle down after the “truly, madly, deeply” bit.’ But was this settling down? Was this it? I suppose it was then that he started going upstairs to his computer more. Closing himself off from me.”
Jean never considers leaving Glen, even after he becomes the prime suspect in the abduction and murder of a little girl whose mother had left her playing unattended in the front yard. Jean’s belief in his innocence vacillates, although suspicion about his guilt intensifies and they both lose their jobs. Neighbors shun them; reporters plague them. As Jean says, “No one wanted to know us now. They just wanted to know about us.”
While Glen is being tried for the murder — an event described quickly and undramatically, if credibly — Jean finds herself unhappy on her own, alleviating her loneliness by calling into radio stations using false names, just to have someone to talk to. Bizarrely, she even reaches out on Facebook to the mother of the little girl whom Glen has been accused of murdering.
Jean is unusually passive for a main character, which would be problematic if she didn’t win our sympathy as an underdog. She’s pushed around by the controlling Glen and almost everybody else in the novel, including a female reporter named Kate Waters, who barges into Jean’s house and whisks her to a nearby hotel for an interview. Jean has never been in such a nice place, and her description is touchingly childlike: “The hotel is big and expensive. The sort of place that has those enormous flowers that practically fill the lobby and real apples on the reception desk. I never know if those flowers are real, but the apples are. You can eat them if you want, the apples.”
Kate seems to be everything that Jean is not: strong, effective and manipulative. The reporter’s characterization was undoubtedly informed by Barton’s own reportorial experience, and Kate offers a fascinating insider’s view of how a journalist seduces the subject of a story: “It was sometimes a game or flirtatious dance,” Barton writes, “to make an instant connection with a suspicious — even hostile — stranger. She loved it. Loved the adrenaline rush of getting to the doorstep first, ahead of the pack, ringing the bell and hearing the sounds of life inside the house, seeing the light change in the frosted glass as the person approached and then, as the door opened, going into full performance mode.”
I was never bored for a moment, but “The Widow” is not without flaws. It feels underwritten and somewhat slight, with just a handful of characters and only one plot twist that isn’t completely surprising. The story would have benefited from details that enable a reader to visualize people and setting more dramatically.
“The Widow” is best appreciated as a character study, and an emotionally intelligent one at that. I found myself worrying about Jean, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages to see what happened to her. Barton’s publisher touts “The Widow” as the next “The Girl on the Train” — a comparison sure to be in vogue for a while — and although I’m not sure I agree, I see the similarity between the two novels in the unreliability of the narrators.
Still, “The Widow” is a fast start for an author whose talent merits a large and happy readership.
Lisa Scottoline is the best-selling author of many novels, including the forthcoming “Most Wanted.”
By Fiona Barton
NAL. 324 pp. $26