Hope you are all having a great week.
This week of course means back to school, college or work for most people. I myself started back this week, taking my first steps in studying for a Masters in Journalism. I’m excited and nervous all at once, but I’m returning to the same college where I got my undergraduate degree so at least I know my way around, which is a big bonus.
A couple of weeks back, as a little congratulatory gift when I accepted my place on the course, one of my closest friends got me a voucher for a book shop here in Ireland. It was really nice of her to do, and she knows I’m a reader and that a section of this blog is dedicated to writing about books, so I was chuffed.
So when browsing the shop I was immediately drawn to this new book The Couple Next Door. Reading the back cover, I was immediately reminded of the story of Madeleine McCann, who was kidnapped on holiday while her parents dined with friends at a nearby restaurant. I was intrigued by the plot, but also was interested to see if the author was inspired by that story.
The Couple Next Door is the debut novel by lawyer turned author Shari Lapena. In it, every parent’s worst nightmare comes true. Marco and Anne Conti have accepted an invitation to attend a dinner party with their next door neighbours when their babysitter suddenly cancels. On the surface, Anne and Marco have an idealistic life. They’re young, successful, have a nice home in upstate New York and a beautiful six month old daughter. But appearances can be deceiving. Anne is in the grip of postnatal depression, and a dinner party with friends she is growing further and further apart from is the last place she wants to be.
Not wanting to appear rude, and knowing their hosts Cynthia and Graham are not fond of babies, they decide to leave baby Cora asleep in her cot while they pop next door. They will take the monitor with them, and check on her every half hour. What could go wrong? But throughout the evening, Anne feels uneasy about having left the baby alone next door. “What kind of mother does such a thing? She feels the familiar agony set in – she is not a good mother.” She convinces a drunken Marco to head back home sometime after 1am, where their lives are turned upside down when they return to find their front door open and baby Cora taken from her crib. Panic sets in and the police are called, before Anne and Marco must face the shattering realisation that they are automatically seen as suspects in Cora’s disappearance.
Lapena’s debut is a triumph, with an opening that sets the urgency and tension from the start with the help of its present tense narrative. The book evokes memories of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, the exquisitely written phenomenon that presented unreliable characters with questionable morals. With the exception of the smart, stoic Detective Rasbach who is assigned to investigate the kidnapping, each of the characters presented by Lapena raise a red flag at one time or another. So much so, that the reader also becomes a detective, sifting through the evidence and lies to find out who knows what has happened to baby Cora. Also, with its similarity to the real life case of Madeleine McCann and references to other real life child kidnappings such as the Lindbergh kidnapping, the story has that grounded in reality quality.
The plotting and structure of the novel are completely compelling, with a multitude of twists and turns coming at a breakneck pace until the events of the night of Cora’s disappearance are revealed just beyond the half way point. It’s after this point were the quality starts to slip slightly with Lapena struggling to wrap things up in as clean a manner as she has carried the story up to this point, but the hunger to get to the end never drops regardless. Another tiny criticism I have does concern the present tense narrative in which the book is written. While it’s great in terms of the pace of the novel, I couldn’t shake the fact that it reminded me of that episode of Friends where Phoebe writes a book in the present tense about Chandler and Monica 😂. I guess it isn’t really a criticism, as it was just my thought, and it doesn’t affect the novel, but it was a thought I had and couldn’t shake. Also on another note, without giving anything away, the novels close is actually a breath of fresh air in that it breaks from convention by not just ending on a happy note, but hints at much darker things to come.
If you’re a fan of Gone Girl or just like mysteries, make sure you give this some of you time.
Author: Shari Lapena
Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd