Saturday, December 17, 2016

Mini Reviews: Maybe in Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Yay!) and The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena (Ugh!)

"Maybe in Another Life" by Taylor Jenkins Reid
First published in 2015
331 pages
My rating: 4.5 out of 5

I'm a little late to the party, but I'm so glad I finally read this fantastic novel! I had it in my mind that it was a fluffy chick-lit romance, but I was wrong -- the plot was thought-provoking and had surprising depth. It's about a subject I ponder often -- how one little choice can change so very much, for both you and the people around you. And is there such a thing as fate? How about soul mates?

Twenty-nine-year-old Hannah Martin has spent the last decade moving from state to state, searching for purpose and for a place that feels like home. After a disastrous relationship in New York City, she packs her bags and flies to Los Angeles, where she plans to stay with her best friend, Gabby, until she can get her life sorted.

Gabby has arranged a little get-together with friends old and new for Hannah's first night back in her hometown, and the guests include Hannah's high school flame, Ethan. Hannah is shocked by the immediate attraction she still feels for him a decade later -- could he be what she's been looking for all this time? The book then diverges into two concurrent storylines -- one in which Hannah leaves the bar with Gabby when she heads home for the night and one in which she stays there with Ethan -- that very rapidly become two completely disparate versions of the same life, all because of one simple decision. Despite the differences in how things unfolded, though, some things remain the same on both sides of the divide.

Hannah is such a well-drawn, lovably flawed but ultimately optimistic, bright and hopeful character; just about every reader should find some way to relate to her. I thought the writing was good (though I was slightly put off by Reid's odd aversion to contractions) and the first person narrative really makes it feel like you're having a long chat with your best friend over coffee. The book's construction was clever, the theme was intriguing, the book was a total page-turner with surprises I never saw coming, and the endings to both storylines were satisfying. It was a charming, lighter read, but it had much more substance than some other women's fiction. I highly recommend it!

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
First published in 2016
308 pages
My rating: 2.5 out of 5

"The Couple Next Door" is a pretty well-reviewed new thriller, but I'm sad to say I was thoroughly underwhelmed. The plot can basically be summarized in one brief line: a couple's infant is stolen from her crib while they're next door at a party, and the police think the couple was behind it. Here are some of the reasons the book disappointed me:

1. The writing. Oh, the writing. It was fine grammatically, but it was so very dull and uninspired. Half the time I felt like I was reading a "Dick and Jane" book, with short, straightforward sentences -- no metaphors or interesting word use and little varied sentence structure. There was no "writing as an art form" to be found here.

This was enhanced by the present tense, third-person omniscient narrative style, which just didn't work for me here. A made up example in the style of the book: "Anne gets up and looks out the window. Anne sees the reporters. Anne knows they hate her. Anne starts to cry." 

Not to mention, it was so repetitive. You read paragraph A. And then a few paragraphs later, there's almost word-for-word paragraph A repeated all over again!

2. There are three main characters, the couple whose baby was taken, Marco and Anne, and the lead detective on the investigation. We get almost zero background or personality information on the couple and none at all on Detective Rasbach, which made it completely impossible to sympathize with them or care about their fates. I had no vested interest in the outcome of the story at all. It reminded me of a bad YA novel -- all plot, no depth of characters or setting.

3. The plot was boring and slow-to-progress. I wasn't surprised by the "twist" -- and there were really no red herrings or ways for the reader to play along to solve the mystery, and we don't get any look at the police work, despite the fact that a detective is one of the supposed protagonists (I say "supposed" because they all felt more like antagonists to me). There was so little substance (what with all the repetition) that it could easily have been a novella (and maybe a much better one!).

4. This book is about a kidnapped child, which is such a completely overused plot in recent thrillers. Maybe it's an easy way to get women (which after all, is the target audience) to have an interest in the outcome because it forces them to imagine their own children going missing, but I don't have kids so it doesn't tug on my heartstrings the same way. On a similar note, someone please give Ms. Lapena a thesaurus! I can't imagine another fiction novel beating this book for use of the phrases "the baby" and the baby "fussing." Argh!

Did you read and enjoy "The Couple Next Door"? What did you like about it that just wasn't coming through for me?

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