Desert Isle Keeper
The Family Next Door
Author Sally Hepworth stole my heart in early 2016 with with the beautifully rendered The Things We Keep, and I’ve been a devoted fan ever since. Her latest novel, The Family Next Door, isn’t as poignant, but I loved it just as much as I hoped I would.
Pleasant Court is the closest thing to idyllic most people can ever hope to know. It’s a close-knit suburb of Melbourne where everyone knows everyone else, and no one hesitates to allow their young children to play outside unsupervised. It’s the kind of place everyone wants to raise their families, and yet, beneath this façade of perfection lurk some terrible secrets.
Essie is a wife and mother of two, and she’s struggling to keep her head above water. She suffered with post-partum psychosis after the birth of her eldest daughter, and did her best to muddle through, but after she abandoned the infant in a nearby park, her mother and husband forced her to seek help. Three years have passed since that terrible day, but she’s wondering if her symptoms might be re-occurring. Her youngest is six months old, and while most days go pretty smoothly, she can’t quite shake the feeling that something is wrong inside her mind. Fortunately, her husband Ben is supportive, and her mother lives near enough to help her out whenever things get too rough.
Fran lives across the street from Essie with her husband and their two daughters. She loves that Nigel is such a hands-on father with their oldest, but she can’t bring herself to let him get too close to the baby. There’s something she’s been hiding from Nigel, and she’s afraid he’ll figure it out if he spends too much time caring for the infant. There are days she wants desperately to confess her secret to him, but something always seems to hold her back, and she’s beginning to worry that her comfortable life is unraveling before her eyes – and she has no one to blame for herself.
Fran’s next door neighbor, Ange, is the perfectionist of the group. She and her husband Lucas might have their problems, but she’s determined to keep them all well under wraps. Nothing is as important to Ange as projecting the image of a perfectly happy family to the world. She owns her own real estate company, and Lucas is a photographer who works from home and cares for their two sons. Ange has just about convinced herself that her life is actually as perfect as her social media profile would make people believe, but then Lucas begins acting strangely, and Ange is forced to figure out just how far she’ll go to keep her family together.
Into this nest of drama comes the enigmatic Isabelle Heatherington. She’s single and childless, the exact opposite of Essie, Fran, and Ange. As soon as she moves in next door to Essie, tongues begin to wag as the three women attempt to figure out what would bring a woman like Isabelle to Pleasant Court. She claims to have moved there for work, so why does her supposed employer claim to have no record of her ever having worked for them? It soon becomes apparent that Isabelle has come to their neighborhood in search of someone or something, but no one knows exactly who or what she’s looking for.
The Family Next Door is a fast-paced novel of domestic fiction that bears almost no resemblance to the author’s previous works. For one thing, it’s set in Australia while Ms. Hepworth’s first two novels took place in the United States. Both her earlier books dealt with themes of grief, loss, and the deep and abiding love that can bind two people together, while this one put me in mind of novels like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. It examines what it really means to be a family, but it does so in a lighter, more humorous manner than I expected. But different definitely does not equal worse. I was utterly captivated by this novel and read it in less than a day.
I’m not a mother, so I don’t have personal knowledge of the day-to-day struggles mothers of young children can experience, but Ms. Hepworth does a stellar job making those struggles relatable. Each character’s story feels authentic, but I was especially fond of Essie’s. I wanted to see her slay her demons and go on to lead the happy and fulfilling life she had always dreamed of.
I loved the element of mystery Isabelle brought to the story. I was about halfway through the book when I decided I knew exactly what had brought her to Pleasant Court, and as I continued to read, I became more and more convinced I knew how things would turn out. Then, at about the eighty percent mark, something totally unexpected happened, and I was forced to rethink everything I thought I knew about the characters and their motivations. I expect shocking twists when I’m reading mysteries, but I don’t necessarily expect to encounter them in women’s fiction. I loved that the author was able to take me by surprise here without resorting to needless melodrama.
If you’re looking for a book you won’t be able to put down, you’ve got to give The Family Next Door a try. It ended up being exactly the book I needed at a time I didn’t know I needed it, something that doesn’t happen all that often. It strengthens my admiration for Sally Hepworth’s immersive style of writing, and cements her place on my list of autobuy authors.