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The Couple Next Door

by Shari Lapeña

The July/August issue of The Atlantic features a long essay by Terrence Rafferty about the recent spate of best-selling crime fiction by women. “A number of years ago,” Rafferty writes, “I realized that most of the new crime fiction I was enjoying had been written by women.” He names authors such as Tana French, Sophie Hannah, Laura Lippman, Paula Hawkins, and – of course – Gillian Flynn. What is it about women writing crime that so captivates Rafferty? “The female writers, for whatever reason (men?), don’t much believe in heroes, which makes their kind of storytelling perhaps a better fit for these cynical times. Their books are light on gunplay, heavy on emotional violence.” True enough, though women like Flynn’s Amy Elliott Dunne are fully capable of getting bloody should the need arise.

FallPreviewJulyAug_PRH_TheCoupleNextDoor_CoverAnd so, for that matter, is Anne Conti, one of the two central characters at the heart of Shari Lapena’s thriller, which positions itself squarely in the mode of Flynn’s Gone Girl and Hawkins’s The Girl on the Train. Lapena borrows from those two writers the unreliable narration and the creeping domestic discord, but whereas Flynn and Hawkins both employ first-person point of view to good effect, Lapena opts for close third-person, shuttling her focus among three main protagonists: Anne, her husband, Marco, and a dogged investigator named Rasbach, who is summoned to the Contis’ residence in the wee hours of the morning after the couple return from a dinner party at their adjacent neighbours’ house to find their newborn baby missing.

From there, Lapena unfolds a twisting tale of deceit, betrayal, and murder as Anne and Marco discover secrets – both recent and long-buried – and begin to question the extent to which they can trust, or indeed even know, each other. On the periphery are Cynthia and Graham Stillwell, the titular couple next door, who have secrets of their own that threaten to rip the Contis’ lives wide open.

Lapena’s decision to employ third-person narration is surprising, and somewhat restricting. As Rafferty points out, it was Agatha Christie who first pushed the idea of the unreliable first-person narrator to its logical extreme, but both Flynn and Hawkins are adept at exploiting this mode as a means of simultaneously placing readers inside the heads of their prevaricating characters and offering the necessarily limited perspective that allows the authors to pull the rugs out from under their respective plots with apparent effortlessness.

Lapena has none of this to fall back on. Instead of a deep dive into the twisted psyches of her lead characters, she is forced to resort to bland exposition to convey action and emotion. “She told the police she trusted Marco, but she lied,” Lapena writes of Anne. “She doesn’t trust him with Cynthia. She thinks that he might have other secrets from her. After all, she has secrets from him.” Or elsewhere: “Marco is taking a big risk, but he is plainly desperate.” In place of psychological insight or dramatic incident, we are offered a catalogue of discursive facts.

As per Rafferty, Lapena’s plot is heavy on emotional abuse, but the twists and surprises it contains require us to make numerous leaps that are simply not possible in the absence of a deeper investment in the intricacies of the characters. In order for the story to work, we must believe that Marco is surpassingly stupid and Anne is surpassingly naive. But the only reason we have to believe these things is that the author insists on them. She also insists we accept the bona fides of a cutthroat defence attorney who never actually appears in the narrative (compare this with Flynn’s sharp characterization of Tanner Bolt in Gone Girl) and admit the presence of a key character who isn’t even introduced until the novel’s final pages.

Add to this prose that is replete with leaden clichés and thuddingly obvious dialogue attribution (“‘That’s the thing,’ Marco equivocates. ‘I’m not sure’”), and the result is a story that alienates its readers at precisely the points it needs to be seducing them