“Less is more” is applicable to a plethora of situations. In matters of efficiency, using less energy with more efficient machines or mechanisms increases production. In cold weather climates, less gear of higher quality, heat-saving materials means more tolerance to the elements. In the case of Hallie Ephron’s psychological thriller There Was An Old Woman, the “less is more” model would have made this novel much more psychologically thrilling, historically fascinating, and the reader more invested in the multitude of relationships.
Set during present time in New York City – primarily between the Bronx and Manhattan – we are first introduced to Mina Yetner, an elderly woman, who is reading the obituaries; a habit she took up after her husband died. Mina lives in Higgs Point, a fictional place loosely based on the real neighborhood of Harding Park. At the sound of a siren, Mina makes her way to her driveway, where she sees EMTs going into her neighbor’s home. Wheeled out on a stretcher, the neighbor, Sandra Ferrante, has two requests for Mina. First, call her daughter Ginger. And second: “‘Don’t let him in until I”m gone.'”
From there, we are introduced to Sandra’s younger daughter, Evie, who works for the local historical society and is not thrilled with the text from her sister Ginger. In the middle of a big project, Evie has no patience for her mother’s hospital admittance; Sandra is an alcoholic and has been critically ill before.
Evie does eventually go to visit her mother, and as Ginger has a family of her own and responsibilities she cannot drop, Evie also goes to her mother’s house on Higgs Point, where she encounters the house in desolate condition. She decides to clean up and do as many repairs as she can, and finds something quite odd: stacks of envelopes filled with cash, bills paid, a brand new flat screen television, and bank statements showing no activity for months.
Each chapter of this book flips from Mina’s point of view to Evie’s, and while this adds to the suspenseful nature of the story in addition to strange events and eerie behaviors, the number of characters and their relationships unfortunately subdues that suspense. Additionally, there is a strong, mysterious historical element woven into the story, which adds another smothering layer.
Instead of feeling immersed in a complex, chilling, and historical novel, the combination of all these elements in the allotted pages leaves a feeling of superficial interest. For admirers of psychological thrillers, mysteries, multiple characters and relationships, and historical fiction, There Was An Old Woman leaves each with a longing that may have been cured with a lengthier novel exploring these elements, or four different novels tackling one apiece.