Book Note:
Fun With Granny Lizzy
16 February 2018

What to say about A J Finn’s debut novel, The Woman in the Window? Nothing about the story itself, certainly — and I do mean nothing. That’s because everything in it is significant, however slightly. I can think of one detail that isn’t particularly telling: the setting in Harlem. But maybe I’ve missed something! Maybe there’s a clue, to who knows what, in the Harlem neighborhood that happens to lack black residents. 

I read the book in a day, but it wasn’t what you think. I was able to put it down several times to do other things. I was far more eager to have my own questions answered than I was to find out who did what. These might look like the same thing, but they weren’t. I wasn’t caught up in suspense. I was engaged by a puzzle. And it was a special kind of puzzle, a highly-refined, well-mannered puzzle, like a maze or, as I often thought, a sonata. Sonatas are not thought of as puzzling, but a good one is rather like a hand of expertly-played bridge, opening with bids and then taking tricks to meet them. I did not try to figure out what was really going on. I simply paid attention. 

I paid attention, and, as a result, I was not surprised by the big reveal on page 616 (not its actual location); in fact, finding out that I was right relieved the suspense that gripped me most, and it had nothing to do with — well, never mind. And the villain turned out to be the only character capable of filling the role in a way that satisfied all of the novel’s premises. I identified this perpetrator very early on. But I don’t want to sound clever. I’m usually terrible at this sort of thing. Ordinarily, Kathleen has everything figured out long before she’s halfway through, whereas my mouth is gaping through the past twenty pages. Not this time. Kathleen was totally surprised, and I foresaw almost everything. (The “correspondent,” as such people used to be called in certain cases, did surprise me, and I felt a tremendous fool.) That’s because Kathleen goes at it like a detective, whilst I work things out internally, according to form. It’s usually a waste of time — there is no form. From a formal point of view, a book like The Girl on the Train is a mess, but who cares? I could tell, very early on, that The Woman in the Window, despite its echoing title, was not a mess. 

And I knew, from publicity in the Times, that A J Finn’s gender, so carefully masked by the book’s dust jacket, is male. It seems almost impolite to add, gay male — what difference should that make? But I do, because his heroine, Anna Fox, reminded me constantly of Libby Gelman-Waxner. This fictitious personage, you may recall, ran a column in the old Premiere magazine, ghosted in fact by the very funny playwright, Paul Rudnick. I used to die laughing reading Libby, and I felt horribly used when I discovered that she not only didn’t exist but was really a man. The thing is, I knew a woman just like her, a sort of Bette Midler with the volume turned way up. Sample joke: 

Hubby: You spent $40,000 renovating our kitchen in Fort Lee, and you don’t even know how to cook.

Wife: You spent $35,000 on the master bathroom, and you don’t even know how to shtup!

I heard this, and many other zingers, with my own ears, not in a theatre but over glasses of Sauvignon blanc. You don’t have to be a gay man to think them up. Sad as Anna’s fate was, with her miserable traumatic experience and resulting agoraphobia (no spoiler), and desperate as she was to persuade somebody that she was not “seeing things,” despite a diet of Merlot and psychotropic medication (not to mention a history of denial), I found her to be an appealing comic figure. Her sense of humor — that she still had one was amazing — was dark and mordant. It also struck me as belonging to a woman older and more worldly-wise than Anna. But these are not even minor quibbles. I liked the book as much as anybody. I just read it sitting, not on the edge of my seat, but stretched out comfortably in my chair. It was fun. 

And what was that that Chekhov said about skylights in the first act? 

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