It’s not surprising that Fiona Barton’s debut novel The Widow was optioned by the team behind the Wolf Hall miniseries before it even hit stores. The story, which primarily follows a suburban British woman dealing with unwanted attention from the press and police after her husband is accused of abducting and murdering a child, feels right out of the Lifetime movie playbook. But Barton executes her trashy concept with style, producing a highly compelling guilty read.
The story focuses on Jean, a quiet hairdresser who was wooed by charismatic banker Glen Taylor. Barton deftly shows the small rifts in their relationship—such as his tendency to order food for Jean, who is too afraid of offending him to tell him when she doesn’t like something. Jean is desperate for a baby, but after trouble conceiving, Glen refuses to consider “unnatural” in vitro or the prying into their personal lives that adoption would entail. When he stops working in the bank in favor of driving a delivery truck, Jean believes his reasons for the career change: His boss didn’t like him because he was ambitious; he wants to start his own business. When Glen gets a computer that he doesn’t let Jean interact with, she refers to her husband’s new habit as “his nonsense” and grudgingly accepts his increasingly withdrawn state.
By giving us glimpses of Jean’s submission, Barton conceals the truth about how much Glen’s wife really knows about him. Their relationship is publicly questioned once he becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of Bella, a little girl plucked out of her backyard while her single mother was inside. Is Jean willfully ignorant? An accomplice? A victim herself? Those are the questions that the book’s two other narrators, reporter Kate Waters and detective Bob Sparkes, want answered after Glen dies in a car accident.
Barton is a former reporter for the British tabloid the Daily Mail, and her past experience shows in her matter-of-fact prose. Given the subject matter, the book could easily feel exploitative or overly sensationalist, but Barton leaves any graphic details to the reader’s imagination. She can be a bit too dry at times, with a section on the police’s investigation through chat rooms frequented by pedophiles coming off a bit like an essay on how to catch an internet predator. Likewise, in her desire not to delve too deep into the procedural, Glen’s trial feels a bit like only glimpsing the JonBenét Ramsey case from the periphery.
But her tight writing works well when she just shows a glimpse of what’s going on in Jean’s head and then moves on, keeping the deeper question of “what does she know?” a mystery. There are moments when Jean rebels against her passive life in little ways, like plucking an apple from the counter of the posh hotel her media handlers have taken her to and then walking out on them. Other times it’s clear her relationship with Glen has left her deeply emotionally scarred, clinging to the image she had of herself when they were still a young couple full of potential. Particularly compelling is Jean’s resentment of Bella’s mother, who she blames for making the girl so easy to snatch.
Waters is a particularly compelling supporting character, a predator in her pursuit of exclusive interviews with both Bella’s mother and Jean—working to build trust with both vulnerable women in their moments of crisis. Yet Barton also makes her deeply sympathetic in intimate moments that seem drawn from the author’s own life, like a conversation about her career with her husband or the chaste flirtation she shares with Sparkes.
Lacking the personal experience that helps her quickly develop Waters or the page count devoted to Jean, Barton’s portrayal of Sparkes feels shallow by comparison. He’s relegated to an old cop archetype—devoted to catching his man even if it puts him at odds with his superiors and his wife. But his dedicated police work helps the narrative slowly unfold in a way that feels more methodically earned than the big twist that drives Gone Girl. Evidence slides into place, but nothing fundamentally shifts the paradigm in a way that will jar the reader. That might not make television audiences gasp in the same way, but there’s still plenty of suspense that promises to make The Widow as effective for binge watching as it is as a page-turner.