Book Review: The Girl Next Door

The Girl Next Door
By: Ruth Rendell
Published By: Scribner
Publication Date: October 7, 2014
Page Count: 352
Source: ARC Kindly Provided By Publisher
Audience/Genre: Adult Fiction/Thriller
 Buy it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Indiebound.

The Girl Next Door is billed as a murder-mystery novel that ends up turning into a lovely study in aging, friendships, and loyalty. Make no bones (pun intended) about it, this book doesn't 100% deliver on the mystery-thriller promise the original synopsis (the version used for this US release has been updated) seems to indicate, but, after I got over my confusion, I found the book to be enjoyable and Rendell to be an excellent story teller.

Nearly 60 years ago, a group of children discovered an abandoned tunnel system and made a vow to keep "the quants," as they called them, them their secret play area. The tunnels become their meeting spot, a haven where no adults entered and they play games, tell stories, and sometimes cook meals in a makeshift oven. They have everything they need, until a parent catches them and forbids the children to ever enter the tunnels again. Flash forward sixty years to a new housing development and the tunnels, along with a box containing the bones of two hands, being discovered. Because of the hands discovery, one male and one female, a police investigation is initiated which reunites the group of old friends.

The relationships between the group of now-adult children is truly the crux of this novel, not the mystery or the investigation. Old flames are rekindled, new relationships are formed, and the characters reminisce, with sometimes questionable detail, the summer of the tunnels. Most characters are well drawn, detailed, and believable (not always sympathetic, but they don't need to be), but I had a difficult time keeping them all straight until I was over halfway through the novel. And this is the type of interwoven story that needs its reader to keep everyone straight. The investigation occasionally crops up, but very early into the book the reader knows who the murder is so it doesn't follow the traditional trajectory of keeping the reader in the dark, which I found refreshing.

The Girl Next Door is a good psychological study in human relationships, but I had a difficult time getting past my expectations of a mystery-thriller and keeping straight the cast of characters. Overall a good read, and I'm happy to say the synopsis has been revised for this US release (see below) to make it seem less thriller-esque. :) A good, solid 3.5 birdies!

Summary via Goodreads

In this psychologically explosive story from one of the most remarkable novelists of her generation (People), the discovery of bones in a tin box sends shockwaves across a group of long-time friends.

In the waning months of the second World War, a group of children discover an earthen tunnel in their neighborhood outside London. Throughout the summer of 1944 -- until one father forbids it -- the subterranean space becomes their secret garden, where the friends play games and tell stories.

Six decades later, beneath a house on the same land, construction workers uncover a tin box containing two skeletal hands, one male and one female. As the discovery makes national news, the friends come together once again, to recall their days in the tunnel for the detective investigating the case. Is the truth buried among these aging friends and their memories?

This impromptu reunion causes long-simmering feelings to bubble to the surface. Alan, stuck in a passionless marriage, begins flirting with Daphne, a glamorous widow. Michael considers contacting his estranged father, who sent Michael to live with an aunt after his mother vanished in 1944. Lewis begins remembering details about his Uncle James, an army private who once accompanied the children into the tunnels, and who later disappeared.

In The Girl Next Door Rendell brilliantly shatters the assumptions about age, showing that the choices people make -- and the emotions behind them -- remain as potent in late life as they were in youth.