I’ve heard about this one on the radio a few times and constantly see it at the book store where I work, staring at me from the bestsellers shelf. Finally, I picked it up to see what all the hype was about, and I can kind of see why it’s been popular, but it also has many flaws.
The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena is a mystery thriller about a baby who goes missing from her house while her parents visit next door at the neighbours. The parents, Marco and Anne, take turns every half hour checking on the baby, but when Anne checks on her at 1 am, she discovers her child is gone.
Sounds pretty enticing right? And it was, to some extent. As the story develops and you learn more and more about each characters’ situation, the plot presents several ways in which the truth could unfold, and I was never 100% sure at any one time that I knew what had happened or what was going to happen. It’s told in third person present tense and jumps between several view points including Detective Rasbach, Marco and Anne, Anne’s parents, and, of course, the next door neighbours. Each time you’re in a new point of view, you learn something significant to the plot that the other characters don’t know yet, so it certainly makes good use of dramatic irony. The rate of reveal is also well paced, and even after the first major reveal, which is only at half way through the book, there are still several other reveals afterwards that keep you guessing. So, well done on plotting Lapena.
However, it took me a few days to get into it because of the writing – which was just plain amateur and lazy. It was entirely all telling and no showing. Things like, “Anne is angry” and “He looked nervous” and “She goes and sits” and “They looked exhausted” – all smack of lazy, one-dimensional prose. One thing I can say the author does a decent job at within her writing is using Free Indirect Discourse, which is when the third person narrative slips in and out of a characters’ consciousness. In this way, you can learn a lot about a character, including their past experiences and their thought process. So, instead of writing things like, “She thought this” or “He knew such and such,” you would omit the dissociative words like she thought and he knew and simply write the this and the such and such, whatever they may be. Basically you’re writing out the characters’ thoughts as they occur naturally in their own head.
I really hope that made sense.
Anyway, Lapena uses this Free Indirect Discourse a lot throughout the book, which is personally something I struggle with in my own writing and want to get better at – so good job Lapena. However, that being said, there is nothing distinctive about each characters’ Free Indirect Discourse – the voice is the same throughout the book and thus, none of the characters are distinctive on the page, other than the fact they have different names and past histories. But having a difference in voice is what makes each character come alive as a person. So, because of this, the characters felt rather plain and under-developed.
Lastly, the solving of the mystery wasn’t as mind blowing or emotionally inflicting as I thought it’d be. I felt very neutral about it, but was hoping to be shocked by a characters’ true nature or some kind of character revelation, but there was none of that. And the final ending of the book was rather cliche, melodramatic, and purposeless. Again, most of this could have been fixed with better developed characters, more distinct voices, and more emotional investment.
Overall though, I certainly enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than the other popular thriller, The Girl On The Train, which I couldn’t even finish. I would say The Couple Next Door is some of the less shitty mainstream genre fiction out there, and ultimately it achieves what it sets out to do – that is, to thrill and to mystify the reader about whats going on. And as a writer and critic, I did learn some valuable things from it about the world of genre and mainstream fiction, but there’s always room for improvement, and The Couple Next Door has plenty of room.