‘Old Woman’: paranoia & possible murder in The Bronx

hallieWilliam Morrow calls the new Hallie Ephron book “There Was an Old Woman” a “novel of suspense” and that it is — the author sets up characters so real and situations so harrowing that I kept reading it, way too late into the night, because I knew I couldn’t rest until the story was played out.

Ephron has produced a book that doesn’t fit snugly into any of the mystery or thriller genre subdivisions.

On one level, it’s a quintessential New York story about the lengths people will go to for a prime piece of real estate in that city.

On other levels, the book is about how elderly people cope with declining physical and mental powers when they live alone, and what the adult children of alcoholics have to deal with as drinking starts to take a terrible toll on a parent.

Ephron eases us into the lives of Mina Yetner and Evie Ferrante, who renew their acquaintance on a quiet block in the Bronx, after Evie’s alcoholic mother is hospitalized.

Mina is in her 90s but still spry and living on her own in the same tidy house where she and her deceased sister grew up. Evie returns to the block to deal with the squalor her mother left behind in her house across the street from Mina’s home.

Ephron takes us deep into the lives of these two women. Evie is horrified by the visual evidence of her mother’s decline — a trash-filled home, a weed and refuse-filled yard. The place is so rundown that the historical researcher, who lives in Brooklyn, isn’t sure if she can stay there while she attempts to get the place in some semblance of order.

Meanwhile, across the street, Mina is coping with tiny but scary indications that she might be starting the same decline into dementia that claimed her sister a few years earlier.

Misplaced papers.

Losing her purse and then finding it in the refrigerator.

Almost causing fires with an over-heated tea kettle and then a slow-cooking dinner (Mina is sure she had the burner knob on low rather than a higher setting).hallie1

We connect with these smart and kind women before Ephron starts making it clear that there might be sinister explanations for what’s going on. Evie can’t understand why her mom let the place go so far into “Hoarders”-style squalor and yet just had an expensive wall-screen HD TV installed and also has envelopes full of hundred bills lying around the house.

Mina and the reader start to wonder if someone is trying to mess with the old woman’s mind in order to get her our of the house and locked-up in an assisted living facility.

Ephron does a great job of keeping us caught up in the reality of the situations of the two women and yet also allowing hints of diabolical mischief and impending violence to filter into the narrative.

“There Was an Old Woman” is the best book yet by the author of “Never Tell a Lie” and “Come and Find Me.” Ephron is fast becoming one of contemporary fiction’s masters of suspense.

Joe Meyers