The Widow by Fiona Barton

Stand by your man…

😀 😀 🙂

the widow bartonWhen Glen Taylor becomes a suspect in a case of child abduction, his wife Jean stands by him, providing an alibi and declaring his innocence to the world. The police are still trying to get enough evidence to convict him when Glen is killed in an accident. Will Jean now reveal the truth? That’s what both journalist Kate Waters and investigating officer DI Bob Sparkes hope, and each has their own way of trying to persuade her.

The book starts off excellently as Jean is barricaded in her home by a howling press pack trying to get her side of the story. This first section is told in first person present tense from Jean’s perspective, and we quickly see that she’s a complicated woman – perhaps not as loyal to Glen on the inside as she seems to the world. In fact, her major emotion at Glen’s death appears to be relief. She gradually reveals their past together – her initial romantic love for this attractive man whom she almost feels is too good for her, then her gradual disillusionment over the many years of their marriage as he retreats to his own world, spending hours alone on his computer. She shows us Glen’s control over her, his ability to manipulate her, so that over time she finds herself distanced from friends and family, with the two of them living an isolated life.

The second perspective is Kate’s, the journalist, and the afterword tells us that this is Barton’s own background. Kate likes to think that she’s performing a public duty trying to get victims to tell their stories, but in her more clear-sighted moments or when she lets her guard down, she reveals her burning desire to beat the opposition, to get the story at whatever cost to the people involved. We also see Jean’s view of Kate, a much colder one, and it’s interesting to contrast the two perspectives. All of this is done skilfully, and frankly the relationship and sparring between these two would have made an excellent novel with plenty of psychological tension.

Unfortunately the book then descends into tedious domestic thriller territory, building up to a twist that I defy anyone not to spot coming before they get past the first third of the book. The police investigation is so bad it’s a joke, but with the added problem that it isn’t written that way – we are in fact supposed to take it seriously and admire the dogged but incompetent DI Sparkes, who provides the third perspective, and is the only man in the world who doesn’t spot many of the glaring errors and omissions in the investigation. The psychological astuteness with which the book begins is thrown out half-way through in order to allow for a long, long, long build-up to an undramatic climax.

Also, in the middle, Barton gets lost in her timeline and tenses, talking about Glen in the past tense at times when he is still alive, but going back to present tense after he’s dead, etc. If it hadn’t been for the dates given at the chapter headings I’d have been completely lost at points as to whether we were in the past or present. Sadly, Jean’s character starts shifting too – sometimes more intelligent and better educated than others, as if she is being written differently depending on the requirements of plot developments.

Fiona Barton Photo by Jenny Lewis
Fiona Barton
Photo by Jenny Lewis

Sometimes one’s reaction to a book is as much to do with what else one has been reading, and this book suffered because I was reading it at the same time as Helen Dunmore’s wonderful Exposure. There were enough similarities in the story – wives standing by husbands accused of crimes, and shifting timelines – for comparisons to become unavoidable, and I fear they really highlighted the weaknesses in both plotting and storytelling in this one (and conversely made me appreciate Dunmore’s skill even more). As the story became less and less credible, I regretted that Barton hadn’t had the courage to realise her book would have been stronger had it been rather more restrained and avoided the clichéd thriller aspects.

However, Barton is clearly a talented writer and this was her début, as far as I’m aware. Hopefully its success will give her the space to steer clear of the domestic thriller bandwagon in her next outing and give us something with more of the depth this book promised in its early chapters. Despite my criticisms of this one, I look forward to seeing how she develops in the future.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Transworld.

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40 thoughts on “The Widow by Fiona Barton

  1. I know you’ve overdosed a bit on domestic thrillers (as have we all!), so I can understand your un-thrilled reaction to this. I wonder sometimes if books which are really about something else are being ‘guided’ into the domestic noirish territory by publishers, because that is what is popular right now. Like magic and fantasy and vampires a few years back etc.


    • I think you could very well be right, and there’s no doubt these books still get a lot of enthusiastic reviews. But not as many as they once did, and I see more and more people groaning about them all following the same path. It’s a pity, because some of them are bound to be excellent, but there comes a point when you just don’t feel like going on kissing frogs…


        • The thing is domestic thriller have always existed – you could even categorise some of Dickens as that! It’s the way so many of them at the moment are written the same way and covering the same subjects. And having similar titles, covers, and blurbs. A huge part of it is in the marketing, in fact…

          Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I popped in to look at your Goodreads review when you posted the link the other day, and felt we were criticising (and praising) pretty much the same things…


      • Same here. I rated it a bit higher than you on the grounds that I found it very readable, despite the overt flaws; but, as you say, we were almost echoing each other.


  2. This is a popular theme these days. Happily, I’m still enjoying it, but I suspect you might be right about this being a debut and perhaps more likeable (to you) things to come. I’ve heard a bit of mixed reactions to THE WIDOW. It’s on my list and I’ll get to it at some point. As you’ve become weary of the domestic thrillers, I went the same way over cozy mysteries a while back. I tried engaging with them again earlier this year, but ‘not so much’. Not sure if I will ever be able to dive in or if I’m finished with that branch, except for a very few favorite authors. Isn’t it nice that the mystery/thriller genre is so broad? 😉


    • I think partly I’ve just read too many, and partly, they do tend to be written in my pet hate first person present tense, which always puts me off even before I really get into them. Yes, the reviews for it do seem to be mixed – I really enjoyed the beginning and think she has a lot of talent, so I wouldn’t want to put other people off totally. I must admit I can only take so many cozies – an occasional one is nice as a break, but if I read too many I get fed up with them quite quickly. We readers are so fickle and hard to please, aren’t we? 😉


  3. Sorry to hear this one didn’t sweep you away, FIctionFan. I know exactly what you mean about books that lose their focus as they go along, too; I’ve read books like that. Still, I’ve heard good things about this one, and it sounds as though there’s the potential for a real story here. I’ll be interested to see where Barton goes next.


    • Yes, I think she showed a lot of potential. I know I’ve said this so often it’s become as much of a cliché as the ones I’m always complaining about, but I did feel an editor should have helped sort out the middle. However, It’s been a big success with more positive reviews than negatives so a lot of my reaction is probably due to my general fed-up-ness with the sub-genre…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had a dream about you last night! Granted, I have no idea what you look like, so my dream used Naomi’s face instead, but it was you. You wanted to make your book reviews way more awesome, so instead of writing book reviews, you created rooms to represent the books. In my dream, you were sitting high up on a throne in a room full of giant snakes (like big scary anacondas). Granted, I can’t think of any books that would just be about giant snakes, but you were very pleased with yourself 😀


    • I loved the premise too and thought it started out brilliantly between Jean and the reporter. But yes, I am very fed up with the genre, so I was kinda sorry when it went down that road. Still, she showed a lot of promise, I thought – I’ll be interested to see what she does next.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, sometimes when I see the rave reviews, I feel I’m reading a different book – and this was one of those times. Pity, because I thought it started off really well…


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