Monday, January 2, 2012

The Girl Next Door: An NYC apartment building full of drama

The Girl Next Door, by Elizabeth Noble

The Girl Next Door takes place in a Manhattan apartment building. The book starts with Eve, who has been transplanted from England because of her husband's job. Soon Noble begins adding a large cast of characters, most of whom live in that same apartment building. Fortunately, she includes a list of characters in the beginning, which is helpful.

I do struggle at times with books that have too many characters. For the most part, this device works here, but some characters are thrown in for unknown reasons and we hardly hear about them at all (the Stewarts, the Piscatellas, Dr. Hunter Stern, Arthur Alexander, the Gonzales, and the token gay couple Todd and Gregory). I'm not sure why she felt it necessary to include all of these people--they do not really serve much of a purpose. Other characters felt one dimensional, shallow, or unlikable.

It didn't help my reading of the book that I found an error in the List of Characters before I even began! Cath Thompson is listed as "Emily's sister," when in fact she is Eve's sister.

Another thing that really bugged me was that Noble clearly didn't do her research about Oregon. One of her characters, Emily, is supposedly from Wilsonville, Oregon, which she refers to as "small-town America." Anyone from Oregon knows that Wilsonville is in fact an affluent suburb of Portland, with a median family income of $65,172. It's full of retail shops and corporate headquarters and it's on the I-5 corridor. It's definitively NOT "small-town America."

The character Eve has a premature baby, born at 27 weeks and weighing one pound, two ounces. This is extremely small for a 27-weeker. (My son was born at 24 weeks and weighed one pound, six ounces, around the typical weight for that gestation. A 27-weeker would have been bigger unless she had been suffering from intra-uterine growth retardation.) For the most part, Noble did a fine job describing the extreme stress and trauma associated with having a child in the NICU, although she talked about how parents didn't talk to others in the NICU, saying that "everyone was on their own in the NICU." This might have been true for some, and especially for shy and reserved Brits, but for us meeting and commiserating with other parents was a lifeline. Most NICU parents feel that way.

I did enjoy reading about the blossoming women's friendships, and in particular about the friendship between Eve and Violet. The book had me in tears during the NICU chapters. (Spoiler warning: A baby dies in this book. I want to warn people about this, because many people do not like to read about childhood death.) Noble also deftly and sensitively handled the issue of grief and the comfort in shared experience.

Years ago I read one of Elizabeth Noble's earlier books, The Reading Group, and I didn't like most of the characters. I liked The Girl Next Door much better.

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