My Review of "The Couple Next Door"
I spotted this on NetGalley and as a mother of young children I could not resist requesting it! The premise of this novel is that Anne and Marco Conti are invited for dinner next door; it's been made clear no children are welcome and at the last minute their babysitter has cancelled. Their daughter is barely six months old. She is asleep. She can't get out of her cot. They are only next door. They will check her every half an hour. They will take the baby monitor with them. Marco assures Anne it will be fine.
When Anne checks her at midnight, baby Cora is fast asleep. She rejoins the party and tries to relax with the rest of the group where everyone, including Anne, have had more than they ought to drink. When they return home at 1am, the front door is open. The cot is empty.
Lapena throws us straight into the drama of the evening. Her choice of pertinent adjectives, and the internal dialogue of Anne, allow Lapena to skilfully convey character and the set up of a marriage already filled with tension. This is all efficiently established within the very opening paragraphs. We meet an exhausted, over emotional mother whose feelings of inadequacy are dominating her evening with the glamourous, flirtatious Cynthia. The intimidating and unlikeable Cynthia is set on monopolising Anne's drunk husband Marco, who is frustrated by Anne's depressive state of mind.
By a mere 2% on my Kindle, the harrowing disappearance of Cora has been discovered. Anne is overwhelmed and her wail "is a horrible keening sound, like an animal in pain." It is such an igneous idea for the start of a thriller - the classic "What if...." question will immediately draw in the reader. And how many readers, like me, will be thinking of times when they may have been sorely tempted to make the same decisions as the Conti's did? Under pressure, under the desperation for a night out, to escape their financial or work worries, or the need not to have the burden of complicated childcare arrangements ruling your social life, people are pushed to make all sorts of decisions. Once Anne realises what has happened, she knows how they will be judged. She knows how "terribly judgemental mothers are....how good it feels to sit in judgement of someone else." There is nothing more emotive, or that stirs up a heated debate with such volcanic speed, than a discussion about parenting! A perfectly sensational opening premise.
The investigating detective, Rasbach, is experienced, calm, considered, supportive and resolved to finding Cora and her kidnapper. He has seen much over the course of his career and his questions, though apparently routine and straightforward, actually reveal an underlying suspicion and shrewd analysis of what might lie behind this family. He adds valuable insights about how Marco interacts with Anne and his in laws and equally how Anne is treated by her parents. He immediately implies that there is much more going on here than a straightforward opportunist abduction.
The characters are well crafted. Anne is frail, vulnerable and emotionally irrational. She is suffering from Post Natal Depression and has been sheltered and over protected by her overbearing parents. She is not equipped to cope. This is at times a little frustrating but she has been shaped by her upbringing and then further by a husband who has gone to equal lengths to "protect" her from reality.
Marco is a man of conflict. He wants to be in control but very quickly, under only the smallest amount of pressure, he begins to unravel. He has spent his life trying to prove his worth, trying to build a business and an income to mean they can be free from Anne's parent's financial handouts. He is insecure and trying to play a game in which he is completely out of depth.
Cynthia and her husband Graham are deeply unpleasant people. They are selfish, manipulating, uncaring and false. Anne's father is also arrogant, patronising and self important. Suspense and tension is created by the fact that each character wants control of their situations and the people around them. Each are trying to protect someone or something, each is trying to put right the dreadful situation and each thinks they are doing the right thing. Each is competing to be the "alpha controller," the main manipulator. By revealing the character's thoughts Lapena almost makes the reader an accomplice in the crime themselves. We are bombard with a lot of information at certain points of the novel and our omniscient position actually feels rather compromising.
The writing is simple with basic, often very short, sentences arranged in short paragraphs. Information, events, thoughts and dialogue are presented clearly and without any unnecessary imagery or added description. This ensures a fast paced read and alongside the constant switching between the narratives of the different characters, there is a constant desire to read on and on and on. This writing style and structure is completely appropriate for this novel. It emphasises the fact that the story takes place over a very short period of time and shows how quickly things can escalate. It keeps reminding the reader of the sense of urgency in criminal cases like this. This concise and brief style is particularly effective in the last 10% of the novel where it produces a sense of panic and of events spiralling out of control. It mirrors the strain of the characters as everything begins to break down around them.
This story is about people under pressure and the lengths people will go to under that pressure. It's about of what people are capable. Everyone is vulnerable Everyone is susceptible It's about how well we really know each other. It asks us - what would you do?
This is Lapena's debut novel. She shows a promising new voice and an eye for a good plot. Nothing is more interesting than ordinary people making ordinary decisions and then seeing what happens next.
I would recommend this book to anyone seeking a fast, easy read full of twists. It is a very satisfying thriller and does everything a good gripping read should.
"The Couple Next Door" is published in July 2016.
Thank you to NetGalley for an advanced copy in return for a fair and honest review.
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