by Shari Lapena, 2016
If someone handed me the manuscript for this book, I would have said, “This is a great first draft. Here are some criticisms to tighten it up and get rid of loose ends.” But, this isn’t a first draft. This is a fully published book, complete with loose ends, flimsy plot, and thoroughly ridiculous finale.
The main plot is simple. When Anne and Marco Conti go to their neighbors’ house for a dinner party, they leave their baby daughter Cora unattended. Convinced that carrying the baby monitor and checking on her every half hour will be sufficient, they return home to find the front door unlocked and Cora missing. They are reasonably upset, they call the police, and the most boring, unimaginative episode of Law & Order ensues.
I won’t spoil anything about the plot, in case you do want to read it, but I will say that I don’t think the plot would have bothered me so much if the writing had been at all decent. The best way I can describe Lapena’s writing style is to call it detached. It’s as if she doesn’t know which point of view she wants to tell the story from, so she sort of hovers above each character’s head, ostensibly allowing us a window into their thoughts, but not giving us much insight into their personality. Now, this is not omniscient narration where we, the audience, would know all and be privy to the dramatic irony in the characters’ actions. No, Lapena attempts to obscure certain facts and deeds in effort to make us question each person’s truthfulness and possible motives, but all this did was make me completely unsurprised when these facts and deeds were revealed.
Someone should also clue Lapena into this whole business about Chekhov’s gun. You see, if halfway through a book you plant a metaphorical gun, you cannot later toss said gun aside as if its presence were merely incidental. If you’ve read the book and want to know what I’m talking about, it’s (highlight the white text): the bit about Anne’s father not really being her father. If you accidentally highlighted it, don’t worry because it doesn’t spoil anything and has little relevance except to serve as the impetus for what I believe Lapena thinks the real gun is, that being the plot point that sets us up for our over the top and dubious ending. But, I spent half the novel wondering when that detail was going to come into play and the answer was never.
All of this is to say that, while I don’t think The Couple Next Door is the worst book I’ve ever read, it ranks up there as one of the laziest. I sincerely don’t understand the hype that it’s received – it was even chosen as one of the September Book of the Month Club selections! – and have to wonder if it’s my lack of familiarity with the mystery genre, or if we’ve just decided to celebrate lackluster writing. I can get behind a semi-mediocre book if it’s fun or suspenseful or offers a sense of escape, but this did none of that.