A couple of months ago, Penguin Canada put out a call for bloggers interested in receiving advance copies of upcoming releases. I signed up and a couple of weeks ago received my first two review copies. I might not get through one, but here's what I think about the other.
The novel follows the inhabitants of an apartment building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The characters for the most part each fit one stereotype or another, which wasn't blatantly offensive initially but upon any deeper reflection pretty much was. There's a gay couple, and the one who gets any dialog speaks like that caricature you're about to imagine—the one who talks with his hands, calls you “girlfriend” and tells you it would be a crime against humanity and puppies to leave the house wearing that hat with those pants. There's the couple whose marriage is strained after years of infertility and the strain of interventions, even though they now have a healthy toddler. There's the perfect couple whose happiness is doomed. There's the super-rich guy whose family bought him the apartment; he seems self-centered and unmotivated until we discover he's really a nice guy. There's the unattractive librarian who really just lacks confidence. The sorority girl. The crusty old people, one of whom reveals her softer side. And, of course, there's the couple that serves as the frame of the story, a young married pair of Brits who come to New York for his job.
Over the course of eight months, the apartment-building dwellers love, lose, weep, laugh. They all change and grow.
And that's about all I took from it. There was no subtext I could perceive. No greater theme or moral. And so the part of my brain that usually churns through those things while I read was left to create topics to dwell on, and it settled on my dissatisfaction with the book. The stereotypes. The nagging implication that women of a certain age are obsessed with babies and that their male partners are different from them somehow—not necessarily that they're emotionally retarded, but just sort of different in a way I found unsatisfying and in fact banal and a little depressing. At the very least, I'd hoped to gain a Brit's impressions of New York, and although Noble describes the British couple's experiences well and believably, I was left wanting for more evidence of the author's take. All I really ended up with was the recurring reaction, “Dude, New Yorkers don't say ‘arse'.”
I might not have been inspired by this book, but I did learn about myself from reading it. I learned that popular women's fiction—by which I mean books that are more, I don't know, mature? than chick lit and marketed specifically to women—is possibly not at all a category for me. I suppose I prefer literary fiction—whatever that is—with its subtexts and ambiguities. I want to learn and grow from and occasionally be challenged by the fiction I read; I don't want to read about ordinary people's ordinary lives unless the story is written by someone who makes those ordinary people and their lives seem extraordinary. Give me Steinbeck. If I want a lighter read, give me genre fiction—give me sci-fi, give me some fantasy. Oh, metaphor, how I love thee.
I felt miserable reading The Girl Next Door because my imagination wasn't engaged while reading it, the stereotypes made me uncomfortable, and it didn't make me strive for something bigger. That said, I'm crusty and cynical about books like this—that I finished it at all means the writing was good. If you like books in this vein, you might like this one. I'm, however, now enjoying Captain Corelli's Mandolin, which is a welcome and wonderful antidote.
The Girl Next Door
Penguin Group Canada
Paperback, May 2009