Book Review: The Woman in the Fifth, by Douglas Kennedy

“The fifth” refers to a section of Paris, which is divided into arrondissement. The woman to which the title refers lives in the fifth arrondissement. When I saw the cover I thought it was chick lit. There’s a woman looking all sexy, the title in fancy script in a girly color, and a title that sounds like chick lit. On the back cover were a bunch of other covers of this author’s titles that also looked like chick lit. I bought it because 1) it was a euro at the used book store, and 2) when I read the first few lines, I didn’t think it sounded like chick lit. I was right. It’s not chick lit, in spite of its appearance.

The protagonist, Harry Ricks, is a fallen college professor (film studies) who runs off to Paris to escape his collapsed marriage and ruined career. Let’s put it this way: he can’t keep his dick in his pants, and he will never teach at an American university again. Yeah, there are reasons and motivations, but there always are. Bottom line is that he fucked up irrevocably, ran off to Paris with five stinking grand to write a novel. That’s all you need to know in order to know that he’s utterly fucked.

He’s stupid, too. He gets himself wrapped up with the Turkish community in Paris which, intuitively, is going to lead to ruin. And did I mention that he can’t keep his dick in his pants?

His failure to keep his dick in his pants becomes a constant theme and the cause of his repeated downfall, even after he gets to Paris. He knows it, he’s not in denial, but he still can’t do anything about it. Like an addict.

I normally don’t talk a lot about plot, and I’m not going to do so here. But one thing that’s interesting about this story is that it continues along eighty or ninety percent of the way before it is revealed that there’s a paranormal element to it. It’s contrived. I can see, from the standpoint of a writer, that he gets to a certain point, then says to himself: “what the fuck do I do now?” That’s when it’s easy to inject the paranormal. I won’t spoil it, but you’ll see what I mean.

This book is called “sophisticated commercial,” on Amazon. Is that a genre? Sophisticated? No, it ain’t sophisticated. The writing’s not bad. Well, some of it is. It’s full of passive voice and cliché. He also repeats himself. For example, there are these security keypads into which he has to enter a code. Pretty standard in Europe. When he enters the code, he hears a “telltale click.” Time, after time, after fucking time. If he said “telltale click” one more time, I was gonna bust a cap on the roof of my mouth. My editor would have been doing fucking backflips if I said the same lame cliché repeatedly. Okay, tell us once, and then we understand that when you enter the code the door clicks open. I get it.

Now, this is not the author’s fault, but the edition I read, which was the Brit version, was riddled with typos. At least ten. “Thought,” instead of “though,” “watched,” instead of “watch.” These were not just the Brit bastardization of the language, such as treating a word like “team,” or “army” as a plural. These were bona fide errors.

Another thing that bothered me about the editing, because I blame the editor, not the writer, who was born in America, is that they put Brit terms in American’s mouths. One minor example comes to mind: A girl wrote in her diary “in [ten?] days time.” No eighteen-year-old girl is going to write that. We say “in ten days.” There are plenty of other examples, but the point is that I hate to read Americans talking like Brits.

The story was interesting enough. The problem was that I didn’t like any of the characters, with the exception of Harry’s friend, who makes only cameo appearances. I didn’t like Harry, I didn’t like his wife, his daughter, the antagonist, or the woman in the fifth. I didn’t sympathize with Harry at any point. I wanted to slap the fuck out of him. I found no redeeming qualities about him at all. For example, the fucking Turks. You can’t get involved with those people. And he not only lives in one of the cheap rooms they have, but he fucks one of their wives. Okay, if I identified or sympathized with him, that would be different. But he was just a stupid sap that could not refrain from fucking those whom he should not fuck. Not a good guy that got sucked into bad situations, but a dope that kept making the same idiotic dick-related mistakes.

A lot of people have bitched about the ending, and rightfully so. I can see where the author was scrambling. He had a decent story, but then he didn’t know what to do, and he felt that he had to do something radical. “Ah, I’ll make it paranormal. Lot of that going around these days.” My belief was not suspended.

Anyway, I give it three stars because there are pockets of good writing. But I dock it one star for the “telltale click” thing, and another star for passive voice and the contrived ending.