Richard and Judy Review The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
"What’s wrong with her? Isn’t this what they both wanted?"
How many first-time mothers feel the shock of childbirth has rocked their world to its foundations? How many get the baby blues, or worse, post-natal depression? And how many first-time fathers feel puzzled and anxious about their wife’s descent into post-partum anxiety?
What’s wrong with her? Isn’t this what they both wanted? An adorable baby girl, now six months old?
Anne Conti, the mother of little Cora, is vulnerable and afraid. She’s not sure anything she does for the baby is right. She also feels horribly physically unattractive because she’s put on weight. Her husband, Marco, is supportive but can’t understand her unhappiness. When the couple next door invite them over for dinner, and their babysitter cancels, Anne doesn’t want to go. She doesn’t really like her childless neighbour, the lissom and glamorous Cynthia. And she’s very unhappy that Cynthia doesn’t want them to bring little Cora along, because she selfishly cannot bear to hear a baby crying.
But against her will, Marco persuades her to join the party. After all, they will be in the house next door. Only yards away from Cora, and they have a baby monitor…
"This is a real roller-coaster of a thriller with so many unexpected twists that the end comes as a total surprise."
That is the dark beginning of this terrific debut thriller. Because when Anne and Marco return home at one o’clock in the morning, their baby is gone. Taken from her crib. And the front door, which Anne is sure she locked, is standing open.
What is compulsive about this great read is that almost every one of the characters is not what they seem. Anne has a history of losing her temper and blacking out in fury when she was a girl, when she attacked fellow pupils at school. Now, could she possibly have harmed her baby and lost all memory of it?
Marco has a financially chequered business record. Meanwhile Anne’s parents are rich, but the money belongs to her mother, not her arrogant stepfather. Does the kidnapper want a ransom from this family?
And the couple next door? Well, they are a total piece of work. Sexually perverse and ruthless, Cynthia cynically uses other men to give illicit pleasure both to herself and her rather pathetic husband. (She films her liasons).
This is a real roller-coaster of a thriller with so many unexpected twists that the end comes as a total surprise. And what is so skilled is the writer’s portrayal of the emotional vulnerability of a new mother. So many women have experienced the curse of post-natal depression. So many husbands have struggled to cope with the profound changes that so radically alter their confident, happy wives after giving birth.
Lapena writes with total conviction about Anne’s descent into mental torment. And almost everyone in this novel lets her down, allowing her to believe that she is worthless and stupid.
It’s impossible for any of us not to shiver at the horror of finding a beloved child has been taken. A nightmare for everyone – and this thriller certainly puts us through it.
This is your debut thriller. What made you think of the next door neighbour plot?
Where I live there are a lot of semi-detached houses and terraced houses that have a shared wall. I live in one myself. One day, out of the blue, I found myself wondering whether parents would leave their baby home alone to go just next door. I’m always interested in situations where someone makes a small mistake, or makes a poor choice or decision, with unforeseen and catastrophic results – the kind of horrible things that could happen to anybody, with the addition of a bit of bad luck. I think that’s why this story seemed to resonate with so many readers. Most readers were horrified that Anne and Marco left their child at home alone, but I tried to set it up in such a way that the reader could at least understand how it might happen: the sitter cancelled at the last minute; it was a birthday dinner; the hostess had specifically said they couldn’t bring the baby; they had the monitor; they checked on her every half-hour. It should have been fine . . . but of course it was not.
As a first-time mother, Anne is very vulnerable. Why does she feel so inadequate?
There are a couple of things going on with Anne. First of all she’s an attractive, successful working woman who is suddenly at home full-time with a demanding, colicky baby. She’s isolated and sleep-deprived. Lots of women find that to be a difficult adjustment. Of course she loves her baby, but she’s struggling. She didn’t really know what to expect – she grew up as an only child so she hasn’t had any experience with children. She’s also sensitive and a bit of a perfectionist. There’s a lot expected of parents these days, I think, compared to a generation or two ago. Parents are expected to be much more hands on, much more involved and just better, more mindful parents, all round. The standards may seem impossibly high at times, and Anne feels that she must be the perfect mother and feels like she is not meeting the standard. But in Anne’s case, she is also suffering from post-natal depression, which feeds her feelings of inadequacy.
No spoilers, but Anne’s husband Marco, while not actually bad, has huge flaws. Is it possible to hide such flaws from your wife?
You would think, and hope, that in real life it would not be possible to hide serious flaws from one’s spouse. Most people can’t. But we do know it is possible, of course. You see stories in the newspapers all the time about people who have other lives, and their partners have no idea. We had a case in Canada where a prominent man turned out to be a serial killer and neither his wife nor anyone who worked with him or knew him had any idea. So of course I think it is possible. Some people are just very good at disguising who they really are and what they’re doing – until they go off the rails.
Anne’s parents: her stepfather is very controlling although the family money is actually controlled by Anne’s mother? Do you think that in general men are more domineering than their wives?
I would have to say yes, but not always. We have lived in a patriarchal society for a very, very long time. It’s only relatively recently that women have been treated as equals, and I have to say, it is still not the case all the time. There is still a lot of sexism out there. Anne’s stepfather likes to think he’s more successful than he is. He’s using his wife’s money to bolster his own ego. In their relationship, I would say that Richard is a bit domineering. However, I think that relationships in general are far more equal than they used to be.
- Which characters, if any, do you sympathise with in this novel?
- Right from the opening page, the novel is very tense – discuss how the author builds the tension.
- Discuss the moral dilemma around the decision to leave the baby in the house next door.
- Discuss the ending of the novel – what do you think will happen to those characters next?
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