‘Looking back, I think we did the wrong thing … (and) the worst decisions never let you go,” understates the narrator of “The Winter Girl” by Matt Marinovich, a psychological noir thriller getting major buzz on the book circuit (Doubleday, $25, 224 pages; on sale Jan. 19).
The novel summons elements of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece “Rear Window” (from a short story by Cornell Woolrich) and “Gone Girl,” the ongoing best-seller by Gillian Flynn, though it is darker than both. There’s even the use of a narritave conceit that marked the 1950 movie “Sunset Boulevard,” but let’s not spoil the ending.
Scott and Elise’s marriage is quickly running out of road when they must temporarily move from Brooklyn into Elise’s father’s house in the Hamptons. Her venomous dad, Victor, is hospitalized with a terminal illness, and Elise spends her days at his bedside. Or does she? Christmas is coming, the snow-covered summer homes in the neighborhood are empty, and photographer Scott is bored and resentful. After all, he and Victor despise each other, and now Victor has put him in this untenable situation that could drag on for months. Or will it?
Bored, Scott slowly becomes obsessed with the empty house next door, in which lights go on and off at regular intervals, obviously connected to timers. Or are they? At first, he peers in through windows, then he breaks in for thrills. Soon he enlists Elise as his reluctant accomplice. The situation moves into dangerous territory as one shocking surprise leads to the next, culminating in mayhem and revelations of twisted family secrets.
“This is a book about stressors,” said Marinovich, 49, who teaches public relations at New York University. He’s the author of the novel “Strange Skies,” and his stories have appeared in McSweeney’s, Salon.com, Esquire.com and other national magazines. He holds a master of fine arts degree in creative writing from Emerson College in Boston. The film rights to “The Winter Girl” have been optioned.
Q: What’s the genesis of the story?
A: I was separated from my wife and staying at my mother’s dark, empty house in Long Island for two months in the winter, while she was (out of town). No one was living in the McMansion next door, and I was bored and depressed so I started looking at it through my father’s old binoculars. It was the perfect stir-crazy thing to do, and my involvement progressed slowly.
Q: Did you break in, like Scott did?
A: I wanted to go inside and explore, but I chickened out. I did start trespassing, though, walking around and looking in through the windows. There was furniture inside and pictures on the walls and on the dressers. Who would leave their CDs, a potted tree and a stocked bar? It looked like someone would come back, even though the windows were cracked. I thought, “This is haunting” and I kept going back. When I realized I wasn’t going to break in, I started imagining the story and writing the novel.
Q: Most of the characters are despicable.
A: Yeah, they’re mean. I’m attracted to unreliable narrators and dark characters; they’re more interesting.
Q: In some ways, you and Scott shared similar situations.
A: Sometimes I write characters who are close to people I know, and Scott isn’t miles away from someone like me. Elise is her own animal, though, and my ex-wife will not recognize herself in that character.
Q: As the story unfolds, Scott seems more naive and malleable.
A: Subconsciously, he thinks the karma from what he and Elise have done will catch up to him. On some sub-level, he’s expecting whatever may come. Let’s just say that Elise is on a roll.
Q: Is there any lesson here for readers?
A: When you have a marriage that really isn’t working out, get a divorce sooner rather than later.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A YA book about a kid who works in the last remaining store in an out-of-business shopping mall. My agent and I are trying to figure out if it’s too bleak (for young readers).
Q: What else?
A: I still write poetry and I’m trying to break into screenwriting. It’s been a long journey.