From Amazon, “Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately focuses on the parents. But the truth is a much more complicated story.”
Below this point, there are spoilers. Major spoilers will be written in a white font, but minor spoilers are interspersed throughout the review.
Structurally, the book mostly works. There’s a bit of deliberate withholding of information from the reader to create suspense, and I’m not sure that some of the twist
Very much in the same vein as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, The Couple Next Door continues the trend of centering a mystery around terrible people doing terrible things. It falls, as I recently discovered, within the iyamisu genre. That is to say: fucking horrible, because that’s apparently the kind of stories people like now.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on this book. I liked it (I’m giving it 3.5 stars, which I’ve rounded up to 4, here), but there were so many moments that left me feeling cold and despondent. We’re talking about the abduction of a six month old (spoiler) by her father. But, overall, this isn’t as depressing or hopeless as Gone Girl (until the end, where the only redeemable character commits murder). It’s just….what does this say about us, as a people?
I’m not trying to get too existential, here, but I can’t help but wonder at the broader culture ramifications when we keep raising the bar with these kinds of stories. People fainted when they watched Psycho. They vomited when they watched The Exorcist. You watch either movie today and they barely register. After Gone Girl, I felt like a part of my soul had withered and died. I felt unclean. I am sullied because of that book. But where do you go from there? If I hadn’t read Gone Girl, how would I feel about this story – which achieves a certain level of tragedy, but didn’t sear the core of my being like Gillian Flynn’s book did – would I be more traumatized? Have I become cynical? Has the bar been raised too high for run of the mill tragedy to touch me?
These are the things I worry about. Are we, as a society, growing more cynical because of the stories about terrible people doing terrible things, or is it more a case of art reflecting the bitterness of our terrible existence? Is art imitating life, in other words, or is life evolving because of the art that is created?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I believe that when people long for a half-remembered past, what they really want is a return a time when they haven’t been beaten down by the terrible things they’ve experienced. They want a return of innocence. It’s an innocence, however, that never truly existed. The past is not better than the present.
Globally, extreme poverty has plummeted from 35% of the people on Earth to less than 10% over the last 30 years. Fewer people die from war than at any point in human history. More people have more access to better healthcare than at any point in ever. Literally billions of lives have been saved by advances in agriculture and the distribution and preservation of food. Literacy is up (36% of the world in 1950, it was 80% in 2014). Rights are expanding to more people and at increasing rates. Domestically, teenage pregnancy is down. Crime is down. Deaths from cancer have been declining for 20 years. There is much to fear in the world, but there is much to hope for, as well. We perceive things as being terrible – but they simply aren’t. 24-hour news networks, the dumbest voices having the loudest microphones, inexplicable elections that are immediately regretted, social media bubbles, and the rise in fake news has warped our perceptions to the point that we can’t recognize the world for the way it is.
In a similar vein, I think books like this inure us to the desolation one person can wreck upon the lives of those around them. They make it harder to be shocked by the same thing again, so subsequent storytellers have to go to more extreme lengths to give their audience the fix they’re looking for. Which would be fine if we’re just talking about the readers of novels – but we aren’t. We’re talking about viewers of Nancy Grace and FOX News. We’re talking about fans of Alex Jones and people who showed up to Donald Trump rallies. They need that dopamine fix, so they keep feeding the flames of anger, and outrage, and shock, and horror. But it always takes more to satiate them.
How many of these kinds of stories are we going to get, is my point. How much must we revel in the squalor of human depravity before we take a step back and recognize this as a perverse unreality that is wholly unrepresentative of the world we live in? Do events like those described here happen? Sure. But when the stories we tell ourselves depict these kinds of events as commonplace, can’t we start expecting more from our artists? Is it too much to ask for there to be a higher standard for what we define as entertaining? If the totality of our art isn’t reflective of our society, I can’t help feeling that the disconnect is detrimental.
Anyway, I kind of feel like I’m all over the place, here. That I’m talking about everything except the book – which, again, I mostly liked – but despite the seemingly endless stream of terrible things happening in the world, and the limitless people and organizations trying to sell us in how terrible the world is, I just don’t see it that way.
And we need to reject this worldview, no matter how entertaining it may be.
Am I proselytizing? I feel like I’ve crossed into some other realm at this point. Someone find me a stage, because this soapbox isn’t big enough.
Much to my surprise, this has only been reviewed once: by expandingbookshelf last year (it was given 2 stars).