The Couple Next Door
Shari Lapena
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Buy *The Couple Next Door* by Shari Lapenaonline

The Couple Next Door
Shari Lapena
Pamela Dorman Books
320 pages
August 2016
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Lapena’s novel is a terrific surprise, the plot a perfect combination of pulp thriller and suspense. In upstate New York, married couple Marco and Anne attend a dinner party with their neighbors Cynthia and Graham. A new mother, Anne is increasingly anxious about her six-month-old, Cora, whom she has left alone next door. While she listens for any movement through the baby monitor, Anne worries about her mismatched inability to settle into motherhood. She also worries about her recent bout with postpartum depression.

When Anne looks outside onto the patio and spies glamorous Cynthia flirting with her outrageously good-looking husband, she becomes increasingly paranoid. Anne has never had such suspicions before. Marco has long been the flattering recipient of Cynthia’s attentions, this extremely good-looking man with his tousled dark hair and dark hazel eyes. While Anne knows that Marco is faithful to her and is completely committed to his family, his reaction to sexy Cynthia, “always dressed to kill,” begins to sow Anne’s seeds of doubt.

From this initial set-up, Lapena ramps up the pace of her easy-to-read thriller in a serpentine plot that casts a psychological spell. Cynthia's machinations are reminiscent of the wicked fairy spun into life in the deep, dark heart of suburbia. Anne is unprepared for the horror when she returns home late in the evening: Cora is missing from her crib. It appears as though someone has broken into their house and kidnapped her. Anne’s first instinct is to panic. Physically sick, she’s wracked with guilt and blames herself leaving Cora alone in the house. Unable to move and shocked at what has happened, Marco tells his wife that he's sorry, that it’s his fault. An air of unreality permeates everything in this silent and unsettling place where the memories of little Cora’s last moments are couched in the stillness of time.

Anne and Marco’s comfortable home becomes a crime scene, with police officers and forensic teams swarming through the front and back yards. Detective Rasbach, the chief investigator, carefully asks Anne to recount the events hours before: how she clothed Cora in a disposable diaper and a plain pale pink onesie; how she checked on her at midnight, and Marco checked on her again at 12.30am. The initial investigation reveals very little, from Anne’s vomit splattered all over the bedroom floor, to the shattered bathroom mirror, to the front door left strangely left ajar. There’s no evidence that anyone unaccounted for was even in Cora’s room. With no new leads, and no one calling claiming to have Cora, the case appears to be at an impasse.

Lapena builds her narrative in a series of unusual twists that balance Anne’s depression against a kindly but suspicious Detective Rasbach. There’s something incredibly personal and malicious about the way Anne was deliberately dragged into a situation where her baby is missing. For Rasbach, there’s no denying the stress of the mother, and of the father who looks badly shaken, yet the whole situation “doesn’t feel right.” Furthermore, Rasbach catches Anne out in a lie then watches her as she steadily becomes even more hysterical. This increases Rasbach’s suspicions that Anne has somehow hurt the baby, that she might have killed her, smothered her with a pillow, even strangled her.

Marco is at a loss, unable to soothe his wife as her agitation builds. Marco wants to prevent a crisis, but yet again he finds himself on the defensive with Alice and Richard, Anne’s wealthy parents. Alice and Richard are of the opinion that Marco is “from the wrong side of the tracks” and have spent much of their time making him feel like an outcast and an outsider, this working-class man who is not good enough for their precious, spoiled daughter. Even now, with little Cora missing, Marco is surreptitiously ignored as his distraught wife, her “always composed mother,” and her judgmental, overbearing father slip into their “familiar three-person alliance.” With the detective's eyes on him, it suddenly occurs to Marco that Rasbach thinks he might be setting Anne up to take a big fall with his baby collateral damage. Perhaps Marco is a sort of handy scapegoat, someone who alone will be blamed by Anne’s parents.

Weaving in a heavily layered dose of psychosis, Lapena unwinds a dark mesh of betrayal and secrets. Anne’s confession about having some kind of illness that makes her not know what she's doing is disturbing enough. Equally troubling is the notion that Anne really does hate everything about Cynthia--her childlessness and her air of superiority, as well as her figure and seductive clothing. Lapena sets it all up for a violent, unexpected finale in which Rasbach goes on the hunt, finally able to discover the hard, bitter truth about what really happened to baby Cora on that cold, dark night.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2016


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