The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena (Penguin, 2016)
For those readers who love thrillers, Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door, has the elements of a fine one. After all, stories about baby kidnappings are gripping as aficionados of the genre know. If the cops don’t get the stolen baby back within the first few hours of the kidnapping, chances are, the baby is dead already. Therefore, the clock is ticking in the background from the moment the child goes missing, which puts a strong element of time constraint as well as suspense into the story.
The novel opens with Anne Conti and her husband, Marco, making an ill-fated decision that will affect their lives forever. When their babysitter cancels shortly before they are due to a dinner party at their next door neighbors’ house, Marco convinces Anne to go anyway, taking with them the baby-monitor so they can listen into the nursery at home. Marco promises that they will take turns checking on six month old Cora every half an hour as well. Although the reader thinks, “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” what parent hasn’t at one time or another made a poor choice about his/her childcare somewhere along the line? Although a poor decision, we know that it could happen to anyone of us.
Therefore, when Anne and Marco finally return home at 1:00 a.m., Anne is shocked and distraught when she looks into an empty crib. Her immediate response is to vomit and rush to the bathroom, before nearly collapsing in panic. The police are called in immediately to investigate baby’s disappearance, and Anne summons her step-father and mother, Richard and Alice Dries, to come to their home.
While Anne and Marco appear to have a solid and happy marriage, both are harboring secrets from each other, and secrets eat at the fabric of a relationship like acid biting through metal. Anne, who is suffering from “mild postpartum depression,” as she tells Detective Rasbach, the primary investigator on the case, has had more serious blackouts in the past, in which she cannot remember what she has done, even in a few cases where her behavior has been violent. And Marco, the CEO of a supposedly prospering software company, is struggling to keep the sinking business from slipping away entirely. In fact, he has appealed to Richard, already, for more money to keep the business afloat, but been denied by the father-in-law who never felt that Marco was good enough to marry his stepdaughter.
On the evening of the ill-fated dinner party, the hostess, a dynamite looker and supposedly good friend of Anne’s, lures Marco onto the patio for a cigarette. Anne, eyeing the two of them cosying up to one another, goes home for the 11:00 pm feeding of Cora, and weeps because she feels helpless and ugly in her postpartum despair. “By watching Cynthia drape herself over Marco, Anne is becoming more and more anxious and upset. She is still more than twenty pounds overweight from her pregnancy, six months after having the baby. She thought she’d be back to her pre-pregnancy figure by now, but apparently it takes at least a year,” we learn from her self-deprecating thoughts. When she returns to the party after feeding Cora, her face is puffy from crying, which later puts suspicion on her when Detective Rasbach learns about it.
The Couple Next Door is nearly Aristotelian in design. The novel takes place over a few days (a little longer than the 24 hour time constriction in which Aristotle believed), it is set mostly in the Conti home, and it definitely is single actioned. The many twists that Lapena takes the reader through, however, show what a promising writer can do by developing only one plot. Midi-way through the novel, Lapena reveals a startling fact that shifts the book from one direction completely in another. That revelation then leads to a labyrinth of plot shifts that raise the eyebrow and keep the reader guessing.
Anne is the most sympathetic character in the novel, and we identify and pray with her that Cora is restored to her alive and well. However, even if that happens, the events of the kidnapping will change forever the way she relates to her family and friends.
I enjoyed The Couple Next Door so much that upon completing it, I went to Amazon and ordered Lapena’s two other published novels, The Good Neighbor and the newly published An Unwanted Guest. Lapena promises to be one of the next major authors in the suspense genre.