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Thursday, March 03, 2016

Mormon Mentions: Fiona Barton

If you're not sure what a Mormon is, let alone a Mormon Mention, allow me to explain:  My name is Susan and I'm a Mormon (you've seen the commercials, right?).  As a member of  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly known as the Mormon or LDS Church), I'm naturally concerned with how my religion is portrayed in the media.  Because this blog is about books, every time I see a reference to Mormonism in a book written by someone who is not a member of my church, I highlight it here.  Then, I offer my opinion—my insider's view—of what the author is saying.  It's my chance to correct misconceptions, expound on principles of the Gospel, and even to laugh at my (sometimes) crazy Mormon culture.

In The Widow, a debut novel by Fiona Barton, Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes is looking into the disappearance of a 2-year-old girl.  He and a sergeant knock on the door of a person of interest in the case:

When he [Mike Doonan] cracked open the door onto the walkway, it was not his Good Samaritan neighbor with his Saturday delivery of lager and sliced bread but two men in suits.

"If you're Mormons, I've already got enough ex-wives," he said, and made to close the door."
(quote from Page 77 of uncorrected proofs)

You'd be surprised how many times police procedurals mention detectives knocking on doors being mistaken for Mormon missionaries.  It's the clean-cut, suit-wearing thing, apparently.  This particular mention, with its not-very-subtle reference to polygamy, made me laugh out loud.  Although plural marriage has not been practiced in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the mainstream church is vastly different from its splinter groups, including fundamentalist sects that continue the practice) for over 100 years, the polygamy misconception/stigma remains.  Even while I chuckle over this quote, I want to make one thing perfectly clear:  members of the modern LDS Church do not practice polygamy.  Okay?  Okay.

Hyped-Up Debut Leaves Me Seriously Underwhelmed

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

When her banker husband is hit and killed by a bus, Jean Taylor's first reaction is relief.  She's unmoored, as Glen has always told her what to do and say, but she's far from devastated by his death.  Ever since he was accused of involvement in the disappearance of a 2-year-old girl, Glen—and by extension, Jean—has been living under a cloud of suspicion.  Even though the widow has always stood by her man, their life together has been tense and difficult.

With Glen Taylor out of the picture, the local media knows it's the perfect time to get the real story out of his vulnerable wife.  Jean has always refused to talk to journalists, but somehow, Kate Waters manages to get in her door.  With her gentle approach, the reporter is an expert at softening up her subjects before moving in for the kill.  Jean, however, proves tough to crack.  Although she eventually agrees to sell her story to Kate's newspaper, the widow is not exactly forthcoming about Glen, their marriage, and the disappearance of little Bella Elliott.  

As Kate digs into Jean's psyche, Detective Inspector Bob Sparkes—the cop who's still haunted by his inability to find Bella—does his own investigating.  The questions that have always plagued the case haven't changed much.  Did Glen Taylor kidnap the little girl?  What about Bella's single mom?  Does she know more than she's saying?  Was it, in fact, her who did something to the toddler?  What role, if any, did Jean Taylor play in the crime and its possible cover-up?  Both Bob and Kate are convinced the widow knows more than she's saying.  But how can they pry loose the truth from a surprisingly obstinate Jean?

Told from several different perspectives, the story bounces between the past and the present to slowly reveal the truth about what really happened to Bella Elliott.  While doing so, it asks the terrifying question:  How well can we ever know another person?  

The Widow, a debut novel by journalist Fiona Barton, has received lots of buzz, including comparisons to recent bestselling psychological thrillers Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train.  Are those examples apt?  Not really.  While The Widow has similar themes, it lacks the depth, complexity, and wow factor of the aforementioned books.  For a suspense novel, it's just not that suspenseful.  The characters are almost wholly unlikable, the plot is too predictable, and the ending feels anticlimatic.  Although the premise behind The Widow seems promising, the execution doesn't do it justice.  Barton's prose is skilled enough, but the rest of her debut left me seriously underwhelmed.  Bummer.

(Readalikes:  Um, I can't really think of anything.  Can you?)


If this were a movie, it would be rated:

for strong language, violence, and disturbing subject matter (child pornography, child endangerment, emotional abuse, etc.)

To the FTC, with love:  I received an ARC of The Widow from the generous folks at Berkley/NAL (an imprint of Penguin Random House.  Thank you!

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