By Ekta R. Garg
March 1, 2018
Genre: Women’s fiction
Release date: March 6, 2018
Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars
When a woman moves to a new town, her arrival incites curiosity. As the neighbors get to know her, they must juggle their own challenges and secrets while trying to figure out how to save face in front of one another. Australian author Sally Hepworth gives readers a well-rounded look at small-town life in the warm yet slightly confusing novel The Family Next Door.
In the cul-de-sac of Pleasant Court in the Melbourne suburb of Sandringham, everyone gets along well enough. Essie Walker knows she can count on her neighbors to take in her mail or water her plants if she and her husband, Ben, ever go on vacation. Of course, as a mother to preschooler Mia and six-month-old Polly, Essie and Ben haven’t gone anywhere in ages. Ben’s a devoted father and husband and a fitness enthusiast; he created a fitness app that took off and now has a workout studio to boot. Essie…well, Essie is managing life with two young children.
On the surface everything looks fine, but Essie knows that’s just a front. When she had Mia, she dealt with severe postpartum depression. It was enough to make her mother move in next door. Fortunately things were much better after Polly was born. Now Essie just wishes she could get more sleep.
The heat of summer is making people a little cranky, so everyone welcomes the distraction of a single woman moving to Pleasant Court. Essie’s neighbor across the street, Ange, has the most information about Isabelle Heatherington, the new arrival. Ange owns her own real estate firm and handled the transaction of Isabelle’s rental. Her kids are a little older, so of course, Essie reasons, it would be easier for Ange to have a career and a family. Not like Essie or Fran, whose girls are about the same ages as Mia and Polly.
Essie envies Ange and Fran. They always seem to have everything put together. What she doesn’t know, however, is that behind their closed doors Ange and Fran experience their own challenges. Secrets and lies in their marriages plague them. Each of them looks at her neighbors and wishes for the other’s life. When Isabelle shows up, she seems to have the freedom they all crave. Something doesn’t seem quite right, though, about Isabelle, and the longer she spends on Pleasant Court the more the other women find themselves challenged with situations they never imagined.
Author Sally Hepworth gives readers a familiar setup: the goings-on of small-town families. There’s something inherently charming in Hepworth’s writing. The Family Next Door evokes the feeling that, say, Fredrik Backman’s novels might. Hepworth doesn’t necessarily write with Backman’s level of whimsical prose that delights and touches hearts all in the same sentence, but she creates the same atmosphere of wanting to spend time with these characters and making sure that at the end of it all everyone will be okay.
The biggest drawback in the book comes in too many characters. Readers may forget who Essie, Fran, and Ange are all married too and will have to remind themselves. Stopping for that mental checklist will inevitably pull readers out of the story over and over again, which becomes distracting. It’s a shame too; Hepworth paints a cozy picture of this Australian neighborhood and its inhabitants, and readers will find the distraction slightly annoying because it takes away from their time with the women in the book.
Hepworth creates intrigue by giving each of the women, as well as Essie’s mother, Barbara, and a mysterious, first-person narrator, their own chapters. The women take turns telling their stories, and by the end they endear themselves to readers. Hepworth also succeeds in adding a twist that truly surprises, and although some of the information in the climax feels rushed it contributes to the story in a meaningful way. By the end readers will receive the message loud and clear: the family next door to theirs really isn’t so different from themat all.
Those looking for a book about marriage and relationships, including the ones we wish had the courage to formulate, may enjoy this novel. I recommend readers Borrow The Family Next Door.