The Woman in the Window

by A. J. Finn

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327

A.J. Finn's The Woman In the Window tells the story of Anna Fox, an agoraphobic widow who experienced frequent hallucinations as a result of some unknown incident in her past. Anna lives in Harlem and watches her neighbors through a camera lens. Though her physicians consistently advice against it, Anna drinks several bottles of merlot each day despite being on medication for her psychological disorder. Before developing agoraphobia, Anna as a prominent child psychologist.

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One day, a teenager, Ethan Russell, brings Anna a gift from his mother, Jane, when the family moves in across the street. Anna, drawing on her experience as a psychologist, believes that Ethan is afraid of his father. Anna frequently has phone conversations with her absent husband. Anna invites Ethan's mother over one evening, and the next day, Ethan's father comes over to ask if his wife visited. Afraid of the woman's vengeful husband, Anna maintains that she did not.

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Anna sees Ethan's mother stabbed in her bedroom window, but when she reports it to the police, the police do not believe her. Jane Russell appears to be alive, and the police write Anna off as unreliable owing to her medication-induced hallucinations. Meanwhile, Anna receives a photograph of herself sleeping and finds her phone password changed.

Later, it is revealed that Anna's family died in a car accident after Anna left her husband for a man from her therapy practice. Anna's husband, Ed, and her daughter, Olivia, are both killed in a vehicle that Anna was driving on the way back from a ski trip. Furthermore, it turns out that Anna did in fact see a woman being stabbed, but it was Ethan's birth mother, Katie, not Jane (the woman with whom he lived). Furthermore, it turns out that Ethan was the one who sent the email with a photo of Anna, and that he has been breaking into her house to try to kill her, but himself dies in the process.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1889

Author: A. J. Finn

Publisher: William Morrow (New York). 448 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: Present day

Locale: Harlem, New York City

A. J. Finn’s debut novel, The Woman in the Window, follows Dr. Anna Fox, a former psychologist who refuses to leave her luxurious Harlem home, after she witnesses a crime that no one else believes happened.

Principal characters

Dr. Anna Fox, an agoraphobic former child psychologist

Ed Fox, her estranged husband

Olivia Fox, her eight-year-old daughter

David, her handsome young basement tenant

Alistair Russell, the new owner of an upscale townhouse across the street

Jane Russell, Alistair’s wife

Ethan Russell, Alistair and Jane’s teenaged son

A. J. Finn’s intentions seem clear from the start of his first novel. The title, The Woman in the Window, will immediately remind film buffs of the 1944 film noir of the same name, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett. That is just the first of a veritable flood of allusions to amateur detective stories, film noir, Alfred Hitchcock, police procedurals, and psychological thrillers woven into the plot of Finn’s inventive offering. The literary and cinematic references have several purposes: to enhance atmosphere, to underscore plot themes, and to provide misdirection.

The novel unspools over a period of several weeks, between late October and mid-November. In the beginning of the story, the expositional phase, readers are introduced to the protagonist, Dr. Anna Fox, through her own words, in first-person, present tense. As the viewpoint character of the story, Anna becomes a sympathetic figure, however, despite her many innate strengths and membership in a respected profession, she is a severely flawed and highly unreliable narrator. The combination of the two latter traits, and the degree to which they affect Anna’s behavior, serves as the crux of the story.Courtesy of HarperCollins

Once a successful child psychologist, Anna is now a shut-in, living with a cat named Punch. Her residence is both fortress and haven (and a physical symbol of the many layers in Anna’s life): a restored four-level, 4,000-square-foot, nineteenth-century home. Her house is situated in a Harlem neighborhood of multi-million-dollar townhouses, where other nearby residents are aware of her situation. Anna was subjected to undisclosed physical and emotional trauma in the recent past. Now she is plagued with crippling agoraphobia. Unable to overcome her fear of unfamiliar places and open spaces, except for brief jaunts in her overgrown rooftop garden, Anna has not been able to leave her home in nearly a year. Groceries are delivered so she does not have to go out. Household chores are handled by her downstairs tenant, David. A physical therapist named Bina and a psychologist, Dr. Julian Fielding, visit Ana weekly in her home. For a morale boost, she communicates daily with Ed and Olivia, her absent husband from whom she is separated and her young daughter.

To fill the empty, lonely hours, Anna watches at least one movie per day from her extensive library of DVDs. Her favorites are classics—dark, suspenseful, and well-aged—like Out of the Past (1947), Double Indemnity (1944), Vertigo (1958), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Saboteur (1942) and Laura (1944). She has viewed many often enough that she can recite the dialogue in sync with the actors. © AJ Finn

Anna has several other hobbies as well. She takes French lessons via Skype and checks in periodically with a website for people with agoraphobia to offer professional advice to others suffering from the condition. Through the website, Anna connects especially well with newcomer GrannyLizzie, who identifies as an elderly woman in rural Montana. On the negative side, Anna imbibes fine wines steadily throughout the day, and by nightfall is often heavily intoxicated. She meanwhile ingests a variety of prescription medications—including beta-blockers, antipsychotics, and tranquilizers—intended to relieve bouts of depression, to quell debilitating panic attacks, and to defeat insomnia and induce sleep. Though she knows better, Anna mixes alcohol and drugs. Impaired, she sometimes double-doses or forgets to take her medications altogether. As a result, her memory is often hazy or spotty, and suspect when she awakens hungover.

Since her own existence leaves much to be desired, Anna vicariously experiences the lives of others. Using her Nikon camera and Opteka telephoto zoom lens—reminiscent of James Stewart as L. B. “Jeff” Jefferies in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954)—she becomes a voyeur, spying on the neighbors visible from her windows. The Wassermans, who have lived there for over forty years, are too ordinary to watch. At the Miller home, on the other hand, the wife is having an affair with a contractor, meeting with her lover in the time before her husband is scheduled to return home from work.

Of particular interest to Anna is the new family that just moved into the house across the street. Research via computer has revealed the owners are Alistair and Jane Russell, who live with their teenaged son, Ethan. Anna observes the family from a distance. Unexpectedly, she then encounters them in person. Ethan drops by one day with the gift of a lavender-scented candle from his mother. Later, on Halloween, when a bunch of cruel trick-or-treaters are throwing eggs at the house where the so-called crazy lady lives, Anna, without thinking, rushes outside to stop them. She is overcome by her phobia and ready to drop in a faint, when someone catches her and helps her inside. It is the woman she saw at the Russell house, who happened to be passing by. “You’re Jane Russell,” Anna says.

Jane and Anna hit it off during a brief initial meeting. A couple days later, Jane returns. She and Anna drink, talk, play chess, and get tipsy together. Jane produces a quick, well-rendered portrait of Anna. They learn that they share the same birthday, just a week away. Not long after Jane staggers off, Alistair Russell turns up. He bluntly asks if Anna had any visitors that night. Though she considers telling him such information is none of his business, Anna instead tells him she was alone all night.

Two uneventful days later, an incident occurs that abruptly changes the tone of the remainder of the novel. In a particularly evocative scene, Anna awakes from a drunk and drugged stupor in the middle of the suspense film Dark Passage (1947) playing on her television. Anna looks out the window, sees Jane in the Russell house, and waves to her. Jane does not notice, since she appears to be arguing with someone not visible to Anna. Jane disappears from sight for a moment, and when she reappears, her clothes are bloody and what looks like a knife is stuck in her chest. Jane falls. Anna calls 911, then steels herself to go help her friend until the ambulance arrives. When she exits the house, however, Anna immediately becomes disoriented and wanders blindly for a time before passing out.

When Anna awakes, she is in the hospital. The New York Police Department, in the form of Detective Conrad Little, is present to interrogate her. Anna tells what she saw, but Little is dubious about the reality of her experience. There was no evidence of murder at the Russell house. Worse, when she was found, Anna’s blood alcohol content was three times the legal driving limit. Her memory is questioned and disbelieved. Complications begin to abound, and the plot becomes increasingly twisted. When the police escort her home, Anna receives a fresh shock. She is introduced to a woman she does not recognize: Alistair’s wife, Jane Russell, and she has identification to prove who she is.

The remainder of The Woman in the Window is a harrowing account of a troubled individual who begins to doubt the evidence of her own eyes, and to question her own sanity. She wonders if she actually witnessed a crime, or was it all in her imagination—and who the woman was with whom she got drunk? Anna is positive she did not invent the woman she knew as Jane. Anna searches for the answers of how the woman was connected to the Russell family and what happened to her.

Finn skillfully doles out withheld information in a fashion guaranteed to wring maximum tension from each scene. The inclusion of tidbits from well-known thrillers borrows additional suspense: readers can compare and contrast what they have seen in the past against scenes unfolding on the page as Anna tries to determine the existence, identity, and fate of the woman she knew as Jane Russell. Though not all of Anna’s actions are reasonable or logical, they can be excused as the failings of a person—generally under the influence of strong chemicals that distort perception and warp judgment—desperately attempting to separate the real from the unreal. Anna tries out a series of theories on a compassionate Detective Little, who feels protective towards her, unlike his female partner who maintains a hostile attitude. Little gently invalidates Anna’s ideas by revealing what he has discovered about her. He knows how she became damaged in body and soul. He knows why she is agoraphobic. He understands the agony she has gone through and offers comfort because he sincerely wants to see her restored to health.

While the novel occasionally veers toward melodrama that strains credulity, the novel plays fair with readers in planting clues relating both to the incident that precipitated Anna’s fear and to the explanation of what she saw at the Russell house. The final act resolves most dangling plotlines and provides a satisfying conclusion. Though the novel in places demands considerable suspension of disbelief, The Woman in the Window is an impressive start for A. J. Finn. It received mostly positive critical reviews, with many critics taking note of the well-organized plot and complimenting Finn on his ability to create multiple surprising twists. While some reviewers believed Finn’s writing was not always strong and sometimes came off as strange, the majority appreciated his detailed references to classic film noirs. The film rights to The Woman in the Window were sold before publication, with Golden Globe–winner Amy Adams set to play Dr. Anna Fox.

Review Sources

  • Anderson, Patrick. “Next Year’s ‘Gone Girl’? Perhaps. ‘The Woman in the Window’ Lives up to the Hype.” Review of The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn. The Washington Post, 17 Dec. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/next-years-gone-girl-perhaps-the-woman-in-the-window-lives-up-to-the-hype/2017/12/15/588b91ca-dec0-11e7-bbd0-9dfb2e37492a_story.html. Accessed 5 Aug. 2018.
  • Cannon, Margaret. “Review: The Woman in the Window Is an Intelligent Novel of Psychological Suspense.” Review of The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn. The Globe and Mail, 5 Jan. 2018, www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/books-and-media/book-reviews/review-the-woman-in-the-window-is-an-intelligent-novel-of-psychological-suspense/article37514968/. Accessed 5 Aug. 2018.
  • Maslin, Janet. “‘The Woman in the Window’ Nods to Classics Old and New, From Hitchcock to ‘The Girl on the Train.’” Review of The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn. The New York Times, 3 Jan. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/01/03/books/review-woman-in-window-a-j-finn.html. Accessed 5 Aug. 2018.
  • Oates, Joyce Carol. “The Domestic Thriller Is Having a Moment.” Review of The Woman in the Window, by A. J. Finn. The New Yorker, 26 Feb. 2018, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/02/26/the-domestic-thriller-is-having-a-moment. Accessed 5 Aug. 2018.
  • Wright, Wendeline O. “‘The Woman in the Window’: A Fun but Forgettable Female-Centered Thriller.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3 Feb. 2018, www.post-gazette.com/ae/books/2018/02/04/Book-review-The-Woman-in-the-Window-AJ-Finn/stories/201802040005. Accessed 5 Aug. 2018.

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