The Boy Next Door
Let’s hear it for Kelly Ripa. When she chose The Boy Next Door for her “Reading with Ripa” book club, she picked a good one. In order to be selected by Ms. Ripa, a book must be “fun, frivolous, and fast.” Meg Cabot’s novel meets all those guidelines easily, especially the “fun” part.
Melissa Fuller is having a busy week. Aside from having just received her thirty-seventh tardy notice from the Human Resources department of the New York Journal, the newspaper where she works, she’s just broken up with her boyfriend Aaron (by clobbering him in the head with her handbag) and found her elderly neighbor, Mrs. Friedlander, facedown on the floor, the victim of an assault. Now she finds herself caring for her neighbor’s pets while Mrs. Friedlander lies in a coma. Between her occasional forays into the office, Mel tries to get in touch with her neighbor’s nephew, Max Friedlander, to let him know about his aunt’s condition, but Max is a revoltingly selfish playboy who’s too busy with a supermodel in Key West to come to her side. Max, however, doesn’t want his filthy rich aunt to write him out of her will, so he strong-arms college friend John Trent into pretending to be him until his aunt either wakes up out of her coma or dies.
John Trent is a good-looking heir to a sizable family fortune. In order to prove he can make it without his grandmother’s money, however, he has “shed the shackles of the family fortune” and works at the New York Chronicle, the rival to the Mel’s paper. Consequently he goes through life dressed in Grateful Dead T-shirts instead of Armani tuxes, and deck shoes (with no socks) instead of Gucci loafers. He moves into Max’s grandmother’s apartment and is immediately taken with Mel, since he suffers from a fatal weakness for redheads. For her part, Mel is immediately impressed by his broad shoulders. She, of course, believes he’s Max and he does nothing to disabuse her of that idea, although he is of course consumed with guilt and e-mails his brother on a regular basis about how miserable and guilty the situation is making him. What will happen when Mel discovers his true identity?
Strictly speaking, this book is neither a contemporary romance nor Chick Lit. The format isn’t conventional enough for genre romance, and the characters aren’t hip and shallow enough for Chick Lit. And while the plot is obviously not wildly original, the way it’s told entirely through e-mails serves to provide a certain freshness it would likely lack if told in conventional narrative form. However, the e-mail structure is both extremely clever and limiting. E-mails can only tell so much about a person’s life, and the book probably stretches a little too far – people don’t use e-mail quite this volubly, and every little detail of one’s life is unlikely to be e-mailed to friends (and coworkers, and bosses, and…). One eventually begins to wonder if these people have ever heard of the telephone. Another problem is that the reader can’t experience the characters’ lives directly; we have to learn about the important events they experience after they occur. It’s to Cabot’s credit that the characters are pretty darn well depicted, given the limitations of the form she’s chosen.
Mel and John in particular are nicely portrayed characters. Despite her inability to get to work on time, Mel isn’t dumb, and she’s eventually able to put two and two together to figure out who assaulted the elderly Ms. Friedlander. Furthermore, the vengeance she wreaks on John near the end of the book is simply brilliant. For his part, John is a nice guy who’s gotten himself into a jam by impersonating Max, and who’s doing his utmost to get himself out of the mess. He relies heavily on his brother for advice and support. Mel depends on her friend Nadine, who’s worried about Mel, but who also worries that Mel will be too stressed out to be maid of honor at her upcoming wedding.
Other funny characters include Stacy, John’s extremely pregnant sister-in-law, who’s drowning in hormones and wants to know every detail about his sex life since she doesn’t have one herself right now; George, the long-suffering boss, who has every right to be frustrated with his employees’ excessive enthusiasm for e-mail; and Dolly, the catty but sympathetic coworker. In fact, one of the funniest things about this book is the way the details of Mel’s life are gleefully dissected by her coworkers. Despite her boss’s justifiable annoyance that no one in the office ever actually does a lick of work, her coworkers are happily engaged in giving advice and gossiping about Mel. They’re busy, all right… just not busy doing their jobs.
Some characters, however, stray too far into stereotype – for example, Mel’s “Mommy” is a small-town, naive woman who warns her that no man will buy a cow if he can get the milk for free. And Vivaca, Max’s supermodel girlfriend, is a dimwit who thinks Applebee’s constitutes fine dining and whose all-capitals writing is, as the sardonic Max puts it, “a brilliant testament to the inadequacies of our public school system.” Vivaca is funny, but too over the top to be a believable character. Meggin Cabot, of course, also writes young adult novels under the name Meg Cabot, and I did occasionally feel that she’d forgotten the audience for which she was writing. The voices of her adult characters occasionally seem a little too young, particularly Mel, who’s prone to writing “I am so totally not…” like a teen instead of the allegedly mature woman she is.
But despite these minor quibbles, The Boy Next Door is a funny, engrossing, quick read. Shocked though I am to find myself in agreement with Kelly Ripa, I’ll throw my opinion in with hers and suggest you pick up a copy. Have fun.