Jean Taylor's husband, Glen, is accused of abducting a small child named Bella in what becomes a sensationalized media case. The press fixates on Glen and his alleged guilt, even after he is declared by the courts to be not guilty. Jean is noteworthy mostly for standing steadfastly by Glen's side and staunchly maintaining his innocence throughout the long ordeal. Both Glen and Jean also refuse to ever speak to the rabidly interested press, but now that Glen has died in an accident, Jean decides (seemingly at random) to open up to one journalist in particular. Since the Bella case has never been solved, the interest of everyone who was previously involved--the police, the reporters, the hostile neighbors, Bella's mom and her "Find Bella" campaign--is immediately re-ignited. The whole country, it seems, is hanging on Jean's every word. But what, exactly, does she have to say? And how much of it will she agree to reveal?
I was not particularly impressed with The Widow as a mystery or a thriller. Fiona Barton essentially lays all her cards on the table within the first few pages. The reader knows exactly who has done what and why very early on, because Barton tells us. I was expecting alternative explanations, different suspects, and new solutions to present themselves later in the novel, but they never materialized. What we get, instead, are Jean's justifications for her own actions and in-depth descriptions of the day-to-day work of the cops and reporters investigating the case. Although Barton was a long-time journalist, and the seemingly very realistic portrayal of the inner workings of sensationalistic journalism was the most compelling part of the book to me, it was not interesting enough to leave me with an overall favorable impression of the novel.
Fiona Barton's characterizations are particularly weak. I had no real idea of who any of the characters were or what made them distinct. What I did know about Jean, who was the most fleshed-out, seemed contradictory. Her attitude toward technology and gender roles made me assume she was in her mid-fifties or sixties at least. Imagine my surprise when it's later revealed that she has not yet turned forty. Jean is not the only one with a strangely dated attitude toward and knowledge of technology. Chatrooms and internet cafes figure heavily in the plot, and cops and reporters alike seem ignorant of things that should be self-evident truths to contemporary computer, internet, and smart phone users.