When I see the phrase “Hitchcockian thriller” I can’t help paying attention—proving it is an effective marketing tool. That said, I wouldn’t necessarily agree that Matt Marinovich’s upcoming The Winter Girl about a man in a stalled marriage who becomes obsessed with the fact that their neighbor’s houselights appear to be on some sort of timer really fits the idea—or at least, my idea—of a “Hitchcockian thriller.”
Scott and his wife, Elise, are spending the winter in her father’s house near Southampton, which is also rather abandoned due to the season. Her father has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and they are “taking care” of his house while they essentially wait for him to die. But every night, Scott notices the lights in the neighbor’s house—they go on every night at the same time and turn off at the same time, rotating from one room to the next in the same eerie order. Bored, Scott decides to investigate one day, peering through the windows. He never sees anyone inside and the place looks abandoned. When he tries the front door, it’s unlocked. Scott soon drags his wife into exploring the house but they find a few things that have them wondering why it’s been abandoned—or if it is abandoned at all. Never a fan of his father-in-law, Scott discovers that there are many secrets to his wife’s past, her father, and the house next door.
The Winter Girl is narrated from Scott’s first person point-of-view. This is probably the biggest reason this book failed to “thrill” me. Beyond simply being an unreliable narrator—which I don’t have a problem with when its done well—I found Scott to be an annoying narrator and there was no escaping his perspective making reading through the book an increasingly tedious experience. As things progress and he begins developing theories about what happened in the neighbor’s house or plans for what he and Elise should do with what they’ve found, his theories and plans are never quite complete—there are always gaping holes and inconsistencies. He sucks at anticipating anyone else’s actions, motives, or way of thinking. They’re very real character flaws but I feel they would make the story more interesting if they were presented through a third person narrative. The reader knows Scott is missing information but without being able to actually see the things Scott isn’t or won’t, the reader is dragged down to Scott’s gullible level. It’s an effective way to keep details from the reader but it isn’t necessarily enjoyable—it’s like yelling at a brick wall.
As for the story that begins to develop surrounding the house and Scott’s wife, Elise, it started out intriguing but with Scott’s theories and unreliable interpretations mucking things up, I simply stopped caring about how things were related to one another. If the lines of what was happening had been clearer, the red herrings thrown in would’ve been more effective and subtle instead of screaming out what they were from a mile away. The female characters—Elise, Carmelita, even Sandra—failed to pop or feel like believable women through Scott’s mind-numbing male gaze.
So returning to the “Hitchcockian” part of the phrase, the first person narration—in my opinion—precludes any allusions to Hitchcock. The visual medium of cinema renders such a story telling form as almost impossible and while there were occasional shots in Hitchcock where the camera took on a first-person perspective, the stories being told were never limited in such a way throughout—the way The Winter Girl is. If anything, I got more Gone Girl vibes from the book than Hitchcock, but I actually liked Gone Girl better because its organization and presentation felt much cleaner and carefully plotted, both when it came to the text/narrative itself and to the characters’ thought processes.
The Winter Girl will be available January 19, 2016.