Book Review: The Couple Next Door

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The Couple Next Door, by Shari Lapena, is a psychological thriller that explores every parent’s worst nightmare – the abduction of a child. This is no ordinary abduction though, if such a thing can be possible. Six month old Cora has been taken from her crib while she slept in the tastefully decorated nursery of her parent’s upstate New York home. She has been taken in the middle of the night when she was home alone.

Her parents, Anne and Marco, had not intended to leave their baby girl alone when they agreed to attend their next door neighbours’ birthday dinner party. A sitter had been booked but then she cancelled just an hour before the event. The childless couple next door had clearly stated that this was to be an evening for adult’s only. They could hear how much Cora cried through the shared wall and had no intention of allowing this difficult to settle baby to disrupt their plans.

Marco, keen to enjoy an evening out, persuaded Anne that they should still attend. They took with them their baby monitor and popped home every half hour to ensure Cora was fine. When they eventually returned in the wee small hours, drunk on wine and irritated by each other’s behaviour, they found their front door ajar and their daughter gone.

The prose has a dispassionate quality that enables the reader to discern each of the main characters thought processes. There is the mother, heaping guilt on herself for her post partum depression, for not appreciating the perfect baby she has been gifted, for allowing her husband to persuade her to go out when she knew it was wrong. There is the father, shocked and numbed, fearful of the impact this is having on his fragile wife and their relationship, aware that the police investigation will bring to light financial troubles he has not divulged. There is the lead detective, meticulously carrying out his investigations, aware that in cases like these the parents are most often to blame, determined to uncover how and why.

Anne has wealthy parents and hopes that Cora has been kidnapped for a ransom. As the days pass and the media circus outside their home condemns them for leaving an infant whilst they partied, the police begin to believe the worst. There are possible motives – Anne’s mental history, Marcus’s financial distress – but leads are scarce. The detective digs deeper in an attempt to uncover the truth and loses the trust of the family. They decide to take matters into their own hands.

A good thriller will keep the reader hooked, offering clues but hiding the big reveal until the end. As the denouement approached and the threads came together I couldn’t read fast enough. I had not anticipated those final twists in the tale.

It is terrifying to consider how an ordinary life can be picked apart. Seemingly innocuous details were construed to imply guilt, secrets unearthed and their importance inflated. The shock and stress of the unrolling events are finely depicted. The analysis of a relationship will always bring to light flaws.

A tense and taut tale, cleverly constructed. The quality of the writing offers enough originality to make it worth selecting from a crowded genre. I finished this in a sitting and felt sated. A fast moving and enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bantam Press.

Book Review: The Daughter’s Secret

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The Daughter’s Secret, by Eva Holland, made me angry. I was angry with the teacher for taking advantage of a vulnerable child in his care. I was angry with the father for being unable to see past his idea of what his children should be. Most of all I was angry with the mother; I was bloody livid with the mother. Well done to the author for creating such an emotive, plausible and compelling story. It kept me up into the wee small hours because I just had to find out what happened next.

When Stephanie was fifteen years old she ran away with Nate, her twenty-four year old Geography teacher. She was unhappy with her home life and had fallen in love. When Nate offered her the chance to start over with him in a far away land she was ready to comply.

Six years later Nate is due to be released from prison having served his time. He will never teach again but this is not enough for Stephanie’s mother, Rosalind. Rosalind wants him to suffer as she has been made to suffer. She imagines scenarios where he is beaten to a pulp, injected with drugs, suffers debilitating, life threatening, grotesque illnesses.

She is terrified that Stephanie, now living in London with her best friend Sarah, will want to see him again. In the six years since it happened they have never discussed why Stephanie ran away or what exactly went on in the days before they were found. As the story unfolds the reader begins to understand why.

Rosalind is paranoid and has been for many years. She allowed random dangers elsewhere to feed her imagination to the extent that she kept her children off school until her husband discovered what she is doing and, ashamed, she allowed them to return. She followed the school coach on an outing, taking her daughter in the car, because she worried that the coach could crash. She imagines objects falling out of the sky and crushing their skulls.

“I had caught a snippet of news coverage about a plane accidentally releasing its cargo of holidaymakers’ luggage into the sea off Spain and hadn’t been able to shake myself free of the fear that it could happen above St Albans. Could a suitcase […] smash through the roof if it fell from a thousand metres?”

Rosalind chews her lips until they bleed, cannot talk because her anxiety drains her mouth of saliva and makes her tongue feel dry and swollen in her mouth. She has panic attacks where she forgets to breath and comes close to passing out.

This is the mother her children have grown up with, in a house where voices are never raised and their father is rarely home from his demanding job in the city.

Occasionally Rosalind catches sight of her daughter in moments when Stephanie is unaware of Rosalind’s presence. There is laughter and chat with her brother, relaxed smiles and casual flirting with her peers. When the story opens Stephanie has been drinking heavily and is brought back to her parents’ house to recover. It soon becomes clear that the family home is no sanctuary. Her father wishes to outsource the problem, to send Stephanie away to rehab that she may be mended and returned as the little girl he wants rather than the runaway he is still unable to countenance. Her mother chews her lip and worries about Nate regaining access to her child.

The tale unfolds during the ten days leading up to Nate’s release from prison, with flashbacks to the abduction. Stephanie needs support yet Rosalind is unable to move beyond her own paranoia. She tries, but always there is a tipping point and she descends into her fears. Stephanie’s upbringing left her vulnerable to a predatory teacher; the guilt she carries for the punishment he suffered has never been assuaged.

I am always reluctant to blame parents for their children’s mistakes. It seems too easy an excuse for what is usually a much more complex set of circumstances. Rosalind undoubtedly loves Stephanie but cannot seem to see her as beyond the baby she breastfed, the toddler she slept beside to ward off bad dreams. When Stephanie bitterly points out that her forty year old mother is flirting with a twenty four year old fellow student at the art college she attends Rosalind is shocked that her daughter can draw comparisons with Nate. Stephanie needs the support of a loving parent but not one who has compartmentalised her as a child.

I enjoyed the penultimate scenes when Stephanie’s relationship with her boyfriend was further developed. The denouement was nicely done but just a tad too open ended to leave me satisfied. I wondered if the family would ever confront their problems or if they would always skirt around issues for fear of the lip chewing and irrationality of the mother. There was a tidying up of the plot, but left in abeyance were many interesting issues around the characters which I would like to discuss. This is the perfect read for a Book Group.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion Books.

 

Book Review: Pretty Is

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Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell, is a book about loneliness and longing. It tells the story of two young women who were abducted by a stranger and held for six weeks in a remote woodland cabin when they were twelve years old, an experience which has haunted their lives ever since. It is an exploration of how family and society expect children to behave; of complex relationships, jealousy and a child’s singular need for attention and admiration.

Carly-May is a pageant princess from a remote town in Nebraska. She despises her step-mother and resents that her father defers so many decisions to this brash and narcissistic interloper. Carly-May is intelligent but has been led to believe that her beauty will be of more use to her in the adult world. She dreams of escape and fame, of returning to her father as a grown up and basking in the acclaim she longs for. When a stranger tells her to climb into his car she feels trepidation, but is almost happy to be driven away.

Lois is a spelling bee champion who lives with her parents in their up market guest house. They are always busy with guests leaving her alone with her books. She has been raised to be polite so agrees to help the stranger who pulls up alongside her in his car.

The abduction is that simple; children doing as they are told, behaving towards an adult as they have been taught, and then responding to the kindness and attention they are starved of at home.

The story is told from the point of view of the young women these girls have grown into. Carly-May became Chloe, an actress who has never quite achieved the fame she believed she deserved. Lois is a college professor and novelist, her debut work based on the abduction, now being adapted for the big screen. The girls have not been in touch since they were returned to their families who felt it was best to keep them apart, to have them put the trauma behind them.

The families view this trauma as the kidnap, refusing to entertain the possibility that the girls were more affected by the loss of their kidnapper.

The impact of those six weeks, especially on Lois, seems at times to be overplayed. For an obviously intelligent woman she makes serious errors of judgement when a student takes an unhealthy interest in her past. This does, however, enable the reader to better understand how stalled her development has been.

The writing is compelling; I read this book in a day, and enjoyed the way it made me think. It is rare for children as young as twelve to be given such complex roles, for their feelings and how they respond to experiences to be explored in such depth. It made me wonder if a child can ever feel loved enough to satisfy given their natural introspection.

Although I would describe this as a thriller, and there is pace and tension in spades as Lois’s student closes in on his prey, it is the character development that I admired. The adults could not comprehend why the girls did not do more to try to get away from their captor. They did not recognise that it was the everyday lives imposed on them that they dreamed of escaping.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orion Books.