There are times when we have all toyed with being terrible parents, tempted to do the wrong thing. For most of us however, the angel on our shoulder kicks in, reminding us of our parental obligation and ensuring beyond a shadow of a doubt that our child or children are taken good care of. Not so for Anna and Marco in Shari Lapena’s first novel The Couple Next Door.
When I started reading this book, which I had picked up as a quick read in a UK bookshop, I thought I had made a mistake. I seemed like there were too few characters to make it a compelling story. Surely I would figure out in a blink who did it? Or I might just get to a point where, as with The Girl on the Train, it just became completely obvious. Ha! How foolish I was! Lapena has crafted a compelling, taut novel, where no one is blameless and everyone is guilty of something, but which leaves you guessing every step of the way as to who actually took baby Cora and even when you seem to have the answer, you don’t!
Anna and Marco appear to have it all. First time parents to a beautiful little girl, they live in an affluent suburb, filled with big houses, fancy furniture and nice cars. Invited to dinner by their next door neighbors to celebrate a birthday, their babysitter cancels. Faced with cancelling on the neighbors who aren’t ‘child friendly’ and ruining their chance for a night out, or relying on a baby monitor and plenty of trips back to their house to check on little Cora, they choose the latter and so immediately fail a moral test and in so doing allow the main action of the novel to occur.
As a parent reader I found this basic premise incredibly compelling, as most of us have been faced with a similar decision in our time. For those of us who lived in the UK during the early 2000s, it perhaps takes us back to the Madeleine McCann case, where a three year old girl was left with her younger siblings in a holiday apartment complex, whilst her parents dined with friends just across the pool, popping back intermittently to check she was ok. Naturally at some point she was discovered to be missing and yes, retrospectively a terrible decision, but one which many parents have perhaps approximated.
Of course, as with all good thrillers, nothing is quite as it seems and everyone appears to have motive or at least culpable guilt. Marco and Anna are no dream couple and the neighbors Cynthia and Graham appear to be even worse. Anna’s parents are keeping their own secrets and Detective Rasbach is, as a consequence, confounded at every turn.
It’s funny how in some books you can guess what might happen but still be surprised when it does and I guess that’s the sign of a good writer. Shari Lapena, lets us guess and keeps surprising us every step of the way. A chilling and engaging summer read.