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The Widow Hardcover – February 16, 2016
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A Conversation between Fiona Barton and Kate Hamer
KH: Hi Fiona, nice to e-meet you! My view is that the psychological thriller or suspense novel has always been around, but these days publishers are marketing them in a far more defined way. I always think of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as the ultimate psychological thriller and that’s been around for a while! That getting under the skin of the character, the creepy atmosphere and the sense that ‘bad things are happening’ - we’re just not sure what. It’s a genre I adore. I think the fact that they often get inside the minds of the characters gives them an air of realism too because as a reader you can’t help but start looking out through their eyes.
FB: Hi Kate, lovely to virtually chat with you. Totally agree that this genre has been around forever but maybe the new appetite is being fuelled by the fresh crop of domestic noir novels. As a former reporter, I’ve often thought that most journalism is domestic noir! And as a reader, I love the edginess of watching ordinary people faced with life-changing events; that thrilling shudder that comes with knowing this could have happened to me. ..
I loved the premise for The Girl In The Red Coat. Where did you find the idea for the story?
KH: The Girl in the Red Coat began life as an image and an atmosphere. At the time I had no real idea where it came from but I was plagued by the picture of a little girl standing in a forest and wearing a red coat. I knew she was lost, that was for sure, and that there was something strange or different about her. She ‘followed’ me round for several weeks before I sat up in bed one night and wrote the first chapter straight off… It’s only when I finished the first draft that I began to see certain influences there - Little Red Riding Hood and so on. I find writing’s weird like that - sometimes it’s only when I come up for air that I begin to see these things!
FB: For me it was an image and a voice. The image was a wife, sitting in court, hearing in the most gut-wrenching detail, the crime her husband - the man she chose - is accused of. I covered a number of stories where the wife hovered, anonymously, on the edge of the main story and I always wondered what she knew or allowed herself to know. The voice was Jean Taylor’s - the widow in the title. She was there from the start - my earworm. And it was her phrase “No more of his nonsense” that set the mood of the book.
For me, the crime came later. It was not about the disappearance of a child for quite a while whereas you began with the disappearance of Carmel. Her voice is so strong in the book and I wondered how you managed the child narrator.
KH: A child narrator can be a bit of a challenge but I very much didn’t want to ‘talk down’ to Carmel and make her too childlike. I guess I always thought of her as a person who happens to be eight. I’ve also always felt that children have rich inner lives of their own and hopefully Carmel’s voice reflects that. She’s not perfect though; she can be judgy sometimes and she’s on the cusp of an age where her relationship with her Mum is becoming a little bit ‘push me, pull you.’
I found Jean’s voice in your book so compelling yet very complex. Was it your intention to create a morally ambiguous figure?
FB: I love the unreliable narrator - you’ve already mentioned Rebecca, my favourite - and I knew that Jean had secrets she wanted to keep and disclose at the same time. She kept me guessing as well at times. I suppose people think she is morally ambiguous because she calls Glen’s behaviour “nonsense” but I felt she was trying to make it easier to cope with. The alternative was to lose everything. It’s interesting to me that readers have been surprised by her age - they thought she was older because she is quite old-fashioned in her approach to marriage.
It’s a very strange thing when people tell you how they see someone you have created, isn’t it?
KH: It is strange - that experience of a book going out into the world and taking on a life of its own. I did an event recently and two women in the audience started arguing with each other about a certain point in the book and I found that rather wonderful. It was like the book had taken over and I really didn’t need to be there!
How do you work? Do you carry out fairly intricate plotting beforehand or do you write without a road map?
FB: I am an unashamed plunger. I have an idea and write it in my head - journo habits that cannot be cured - then I set off. I did know from the start the beginning and the end of the book so I was always writing towards something but at the outset, I was planning to have just one narrator, Jean. Gradually, I realised my story was too broad for one voice and Jean needed to be in the dark about some aspects so I plucked Kate the reporter from the chorus line and then Bob Sparkes, the detective, and Dawn, the mother.
KH: Sounds quite similar to my method. I wrote the beginning and the last couple of paragraphs of The Girl… and I’ve done exactly the same for my second novel so I always knew where I was heading. I’ve just finished the first draft. I know people who excel spreadsheet their books but I like the element of surprise.
How are you finding balancing writing the book with all the publicity for The Widow? It must be pretty crazy!
FB: Completely bonkers. Being a newbie, I hadn’t really thought it through. I assumed you handed over your book and then started the next one. Silly me. Am whirling around doing talks and interviews when I should be working. Hey ho, I’ve learned some valuable lessons. Book 2 has been such a different experience in every way. For a start, there was no one expecting anything when I was writing The Widow. Because no one knew I was writing it. Now, there are expectations. All a bit scary.
KH: Yes, I think you hit the nail on the head about book two - it’s a tricky balance and it always takes me a day or two to get back into writing after being away. ALL writers I’ve met working on book 2 have said the similar things about the experience being a bit scary too.
A big surprise for me has been the events and the fact I’ve really come to enjoy them - literary festivals, book clubs and so on. It wasn’t like that at the start. My best friend from school reminded me recently that at school I was literally too shy to stand up and do a bible reading in class. My first event here was the Cheltenham literary festival, which is quite a big one, and my legs were shaking so much I could hardly climb up on the stage. Now I can’t see what my problem was. The audiences are all avid readers, just like me, and I’ve had such moving, hilarious and interesting conversations with people I just wouldn’t have met otherwise.
If you’re at home how’s your writing routine? I know with me if I haven’t really got down to it by mid-afternoon I’ve kind of lost the writing day.
FB: Sadly, ditto. Need to do it first thing and have ended up writing in bed so I cannot be distracted by the day. Not good for my back but it seems to work for the writing. Once I’m up and out of my jimjams, I am a first class procrastinator. Am working on my routine to be able to write in clothes!
Are you a desk or duvet novelist?
KH: Ha - that’s hilarious! There certainly seems to be something about that morning energy. Sometimes when I feel a bit stuck I do the ‘morning pages’ - writing long hand very first thing in the morning. It really works for me, as it’s a time where the brain seems quite free and floating. For the epic slog though it’s the desk and clothed!
What’s the best writing tip of yours? *sits with pen ready to copy it down*.
If only I had one. I listen, I watch, I squirrel it all away. As a former reporter, I cannot help myself. Last week, I was at an event and had breakfast in the hotel dining room. When I came out, I could tell my husband what everyone ate, what they were wearing, who’d had a row before coming through the door and who could do The Times crossword quickest. I love that sort of detail - it was what made stories sing for me when I was reporting.
How about you? *licking pencil point ready.*
KH: That’s quite a feat first thing in the morning! For me - and it’s pretty basic - it’s just trusting your gut with the story. You know deep inside what’s working and what’s not. Trust those instincts. Oh, and read Stephen King’s On Writing - it’s brilliant.
FB: It’s a strange thing this writing lark. But I am loving it. ..
Thanks for the chat - and would love to meet up properly. Perhaps our paths will cross on the literary tour route. Very much looking forward to reading your next.
KH: Writing IS a weird job, basically sitting in a room with a cast of people who don’t exist, but I love it too. Thanks, it’s been great fun and yes, would be fab if our paths crossed properly. Best of luck with book 2 - I’ll look out for it. X
“If you liked Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, you might want to pick up The Widow by Fiona Barton. Engrossing. Suspenseful.”—Stephen King
“The ultimate psychological thriller! Barton carefully unspools this dark, intimate tale of a terrible crime, a stifling marriage, and the lies spouses tell not just to each other, but to themselves in order to make it through.”—Lisa Gardner, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Find Her and Right Behind You
“A twisted psychological thriller you’ll have trouble putting down.”—People
“Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, is being compared to Gone Girl, Before I Go To Sleep and The Girl on the Train. It’s actually better than them all.”—Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“[A] twisty tale...with a mesmerizing if unreliable narrator...that will blow your mind.”—Oprah.com
“[Jean is] a fascinating puzzle...Barton knows how to ramp up tension.”—The New York Times Book Review
“[Barton] delivers the goods...Richly character-driven in a way that is both satisfying and engrossing.”—The Washington Post
“[The Widow] will keep you in suspense late into the night.”—Good Housekeeping
“Barton skillfully weaves a tale that reminds us that yes, we can be deceived by others, but we can just as easily deceive ourselves.”—USA Today
“Both a taut reconstruction of a crime and a ruthless examination of marriage...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.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Barton’s writing is compelling and top-notch.”—Associated Press
“Gone Girl fans will relish this taut, psychological thriller.”—US Weekly
“The Widow never loses sight of the dark secrets that define ordinary lives, the gray areas where deception gives way to the truth. This is one book in which such subtleties matter as much as the plot.”—Chicago Tribune
“[Barton’s] journalistic eye is what makes this debut novel so assured and compelling.”—NPR.org
“Every once in awhile, a suspense thriller comes along that grips readers and won’t let go....Joining that mini-library is The Widow by Fiona Barton, a thoroughly chilling novel with one of the most unreliable narrators in recent memory.”—The Sacramento Bee
“I read The Widow with an increasing sense that I was turning the pages through next year’s The Girl on the Train. It has all the ingredients for a bestseller—a clear proposition and a central premise that will stimulate word of mouth.”—The Bookseller (UK)
“A twisty psychological suspense that held me spellbound. Fiona Barton delves into the darkest reaches of the husband and wife relationship and the secrets they keep.”—Linda Castillo, New York Times bestselling author of Among the Wicked
About the Author
Fiona Barton, the New York Times bestselling author of The Widow and The Child, trains and works with journalists all over the world. Previously, she was a senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at the Mail on Sunday, where she won Reporter of the Year at the British Press Awards.
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Top customer reviews
The problem I have is (and this seems to be recurring for me with some books these days) the media department of the publisher who has hyped and hyped this book as being in the vein of Gone Girl or Girl on the Train. IT IS NOT. Please don't expect it to be a twisty-turny plot with surprises. There are no surprises. Everyone knows from the get-go who did this. There is no last minute plot twist. It simply is a well-written story (not a mystery, not a "thriller") about the aforementioned three people most involved in the young girl's disappearance. The characters are well-written and pretty fleshed out. But what you read in the first couple chapters *is* the story.....the rest of the novel just takes you through how the characters deal with the fall-out.
If you're looking for a psychological thriller (which I wouldn't have been had not the publisher advertised it as such), you'll be disappointed. But if you just want an interesting story that is really just a look at people's lives while they deal with this tragedy, then you might enjoy it. So I knocked off a star for the marketing department....shame on them.
Jean Taylor is a perfect London housewife, a little untidy. Her husband, Glen, is controlling. He married her young and convinced her of his importance in the world. Most of it was a lie, but Jean doesn't seem particularly upset by that. In fact she's not particularly upset about much of anything, including the fact that Glen was just run over by a bus. What does upset her is the ever-present horde of reporters wanting to get her story.
It seems that Glen just may have kidnapped beautiful little Bella, who was out playing in her yard one minute and, the next minute, was gone.
Despite Bella's mother's tearful pleas on the media, and the dedicated detecting of Bob Sparks, no trace of Bella is ever found.
Glen is the prime suspect. His truck was seen in the area the day Bella was snatched. And there are other clues, as well. But nothing can be proved.
And so Jean and Glen continue to live their "normal" life, Bob Sparks continues to obsessively pursue the case, and crack reporter Kate Waters continues to pursue Jean for the real heretofore untold story.
How much does Jean really know? What did Glen really do? Was he the monster others thought him to be? What happened to little Bella? What can Bob Sparks discover from the midst of his own obsessions?
FIONA BARTON's carefully written tale explores the tale from three points of view: Jean's, Kate Waters', and Bob Sparks'.
For the record, contrary to the blurbs, THE WIDOW is not THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. In fact, I wish reviewers would stop plastering that on the covers of books. It is, however, a compellingly eerie story.
What's great about it? Lots. Here are the Top Ten Things That Are Great About THE WIDOW:
10. Fiona Barton can really write. Her sentences flow, the moods emerge from the pages, the story tracks well.
9. Mysteriously creepy. You'll be wondering until the very end. What did happen to Bella?
8. The many disguises of a monster. You've seen the little internet quizzes where you have to pick out the serial killer and you invariably pick the investment banker or the scout leader. The point is correct: it is not always easy to spot a monster.
7. Look in the dictionary under co-dependent and you will find pictures of Glen and Jean. He has his way things need to be done and she adapts. They stick together while they are not really together. The description of the dynamic is fascinating.
6. Something to ponder. Can you really live with someone day in and day out and not know who or what they really are?
5. Ever deal with someone who has excuses for every behavior? Nothing is ever his fault? Meet Glen. Be glad you didn't marry him.
4. Three story-lines are told in perfect balance with each other.
3. Character, character, character. Barton has come up with four wildly diverse characters: Jean, Glen, Kate Waters, and Bob Sparks. They are delicately drawn and understood.
2. A nice time capsule from 2006 - 2010.
1. The surprise. Wait for it.
No fair skipping ahead.
The Widow brings us into the life of Jean Taylor, who has recently become a widow when her husband was killed by a bus. As Jean tries to navigate this loss, she is bombarded by press and police alike. Why? Because her husband was also the number one suspect in the disappearance of a young, local girl several years ago. Jean always stood by his side, but now that he is gone, will the truth come to light?
This book could have been very interesting. I was intrigued by the idea of a woman trapped by a controlling monster, and who she will become now that he was gone. But it wasn't really like that at all.
I had several problems with this book. First, it was told from several different perspectives. This is not a problem in itself. I've read several books who employ this tactic, and if done skillfully, it can work really well. It did not work in this case. The 3 main perspectives we get are - The Widow, The Detective, and The Reporter. But only The Widow's is written in first person. The other 2 are done in 3rd person, and this can be a bit hard to read. It makes you continually stop and try and remember whose chapter this is. I am sure the author did this to establish Jean as the main character, but it really just didn't flow well.
Also, while I really enjoyed the chapters written from the detective's perspective (I read a lot of police procedurals and I thoroughly enjoy the solving of a crime aspect), I felt like the reporter's segments were just filler - to make the book longer. They didn't really add anything to the story. And I didn't care for the character of the reporter at all. And that's fine - there are going to be unlikeable characters in a book. But I felt like the author was trying to MAKE her likeable. There were constant references to how the people she wrote about would stay in touch with her and trust her, like she was a good friend to them. But the woman came across as very manipulative and self-serving to me. I didn't enjoy her chapters at all.
And, really, the main character wasn't hugely likeable either. I couldn't even muster up much sympathy for her. As the book goes on, we find out more and more about her husband, and he was a vile person, to be sure. But the way the book was set up, you kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. She's going to really turn things around. I guess she did technically kill her husband, but I kind of suspected that all along and the way it was done felt very anticlimactic. In the end, I didn't sense this big, powerful shift from her, just that she went a bit mad. And I don't know that she was ever going to expose the truth, if she hadn't been found out.
The author also randomly inserts a chapter or two from the POV of the grieving mother of the missing child, as well as Jean's husband, the alleged abductor. These not only felt like more filler, but the chapter from Glen's POV was really disturbing. I don't need to get that up close and personal with the mind of pedophile. I think it was a cheap way to reveal more about what happened to the girl, and it didn't pay off, IMO.
There was a real problem with the timeline and pacing as well. The book starts in present time, then takes us back to the time of the child's disappearance; then flits back and forth across the years. Again, this can work well if done right. But I felt like too much was revealed too soon. At the start of the book you know the husband is dead and isn't in jail. From fairly early on you know the child was never found. It's pretty easy to ascertain what is going to happen. There is no suspense, no fun reveals, very little build up. It's basically a slow burn to the inevitable.
The only reason I didn't get fewer stars is because the writing is pretty good and the concept was good in theory. But this story was just not executed well.