Review: The Couple Next Door

Happy fall, y’all! Looking for a creepy read this October? Start with Shari Lapena’s debut thriller, The Couple Next Door.

About the book: Marco and Anne Conti decide to continue with their dinner party plans even after their babysitter cancels, opting to leave their six month old baby home alone next door. Despite checking on her every half hour and carting around an auditory baby monitor, they’re in for a shock when they return home after 1 a.m. to discover their daughter is missing from her crib. Detective Rasbach is all-inclusive in his search, aiming suspicion at everyone from the missing babysitter, to the Contis’ neighbors, to the parents themselves. Everyone has a secret to hide, but which of them is responsible for the baby’s kidnapping? As Anne and Marco crack under the strain of being questioned about the disappearance of their child, their relationship falters and hidden details of their pasts begin to leak out. But everyone of suspicion seems to be accounted for–so where’s the baby?

I loved this story, but mildly hated its presentation. Here are a few reasons why:

The detective’s close presence in this story opens up the novel for difficult speculation early on. Almost as soon as the police arrive, Detective Rasbach is insinuating that the baby’s parents may be the guilty parties. He suggests that the baby may already be dead. His probing questions and his doubts about everyone’s morality instantly raise the tension of the novel. However, he feels like a literary device planted in the book specifically for this purpose. Detective Rashbach is a very stereotypical sort: very little personality appears other than predictable traits like that nothing surprises him, and he seeks the truth beyond all else. In fact, he was so thorough that there was almost no need to think while reading this book at all–every possibility was spelled out explicitly, thecouplenextdoorand often more than once. Rasbach wasn’t the only character speculating, but he was the only one who felt superfluous. Of course, any good crime novel needs a detective, but I wish this book had found a way to use the other main characters to increase suspense without stating everything so obviously–by eliminating access to Rasbach’s thoughts, the reader would be much more involved in finding the answers to this mystery, and more engaged in the book overall. Being able to see the detective’s actions without being force-fed all of his reasoning would allow for more showing, less telling. Here’s a sample of Rasbach regurgitating information the reader has already been given:

“Detective Rasbach observes the couple closely. A baby is missing. Taken from her crib–if the parents, Marco and Anne Conti, are to be believed–between approximately 12:30 a.m. and 1:27 a.m., by a person or persons unknown, while the parents were at a party next door. The front door had been found partly open. The back door might have been left unlocked by the father–it had in fact been found closed but unlocked when the police arrived. There is no denying the stress of the mother. And of the father, who looks badly shaken. But the whole situation doesn’t feel right. Rasbach wonders what is really going on.”

Another aspect that bothered me about this book was its third person narration. Statements like “Rasbach wonders what is really going on” seem obvious and almost insulting. This also ties in to my call for more showing than telling, but it goes beyond that. The narrator clearly has more knowledge of the situation than any of the characters do, and seems to be toying with the reader like a cat with a mouse: dangling snippets of revealing information in front of him/her that have been denied to the reader earlier for no apparent purpose. I think this book would’ve had a lot more potential if the reader had been able to see directly through each character’s eyes with an alternating first person perspective. To be able to see selective thoughts of all the suspects and still wonder who is guilty and what has become of the baby would give this novel real power.

But don’t let my complaints about the book’s narration steer you awry: I loved The Couple Next Door‘s plot. I like to know as little as possible about thrillers going in, and in this case I knew so little that I hadn’t even expected the kidnapping, which is essentially the main focus of the book. I was expecting a murder, like most psychological thrillers seem to feature, but a kidnapping made this story so much more exciting. And then there were all the characters, all with secrets, but mostly normal ones. Every character seemed absolutely ordinary, sometimes even more ordinary because of their secrets–everyone’s got something they like to hide from the world–but if everyone was so ordinary, where was the baby?

The most interesting part of the book, though, is the real danger that persists for a few of the characters–especially the baby–after all the secrets are out and still the baby is not returned. When the likely kidnapper is revealed, twisted motives and all, and all the only thing that remains to be discovered is the baby’s hiding place, the real tension of the novel begins, and it is glorious. Some are worried about the baby, some are worried about taking the fall and landing in jail, some are not worried enough about landing in jail, but throughout it all the action speeds up rather than slowing down.

“Crime has not worked for him, and yet he seems to be digging himself in deeper and deeper.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was highly anticipating this novel. I thought it would be the next In a Dark, Dark Wood or All the Missing Girls, and maybe that’s why I disliked it. I set my sights high too early. I did end up enthralled by the plot in the last fifty pages or so, when there was more acting and less speculating, but it wasn’t enough to overcome my dislike for the slow and obviously pointed narration for the rest of the book. Don’t get me wrong–this is not a bad book. In fact, it may even be a great book. It’s just not the book for me. Before The Couple Next Door, I read Pierce Brown’s Golden Son, which is a book for intelligent readers. You have to pay attention and think hard about the details to keep up with the possibilities and plot twists. Going from that to a novel in which every angle is presented in excruciating detail multiple times and from multiple perspectives was difficult to take. I felt a bit like my intelligence as a reader, my ability to connect the dots, was assumed by Lapena to be completely absent. I don’t think the story would’ve worked without any direction from the narration, but there is an overabundance of it as it currently stands.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware is a psychological thriller in which a woman who believes she’s heard a murder is trapped on a small upscale boat with guests and crew who deny that the possibly murdered woman ever existed. As the protagonist’s anxiety increases, so will the reader’s. You can find my full review here.
  2. Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn would be another great choice for October if you’re looking for a psychological thriller that’s more scary. In this one, like in The Couple Next Door, the suspects are also closer to home than the reader might expect.

Coming Up Next: I’m trying another psychological thriller to keep me in the Halloween spirit, this time Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Crammed full of philosophical thoughts and inexplicable coincidence, this short thriller certainly keeps readers on high alert. Check back soon for my full review.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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