Thursday, July 9, 2015

Book Review: "The New Neighbor" by Leah Stewart

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Touchstone for making it available!

"Who in the world will still want you, once they know everything you have to tell?"

Margaret Riley is 90 years old. She lives by herself on a Tennessee mountaintop, and feels that her age gives her the right to keep people at arm's length, to speak sharply and to the point, and even be cruel when she wants to. But what most people in her town don't know is the type of life Margaret lived when she was younger—a fiercely independent nurse who served in World War II and saw more than her share of death and destruction. She also loved deeply and has more secrets than she cares to admit.

One day Margaret's relatively dull existence is disturbed by the arrival of Jennifer Young, who moves into the long-empty house across the pond, with her young son, Milo. Margaret can sense there is something Jennifer is hiding and is determined to figure out what it is, and she's not above using her age and a little subterfuge to aid her detective work.

Jennifer is hiding something. She's hiding herself and Milo, determined to make a new start, away from the trauma and guilt that plagued her life before she fled. She wants Milo to grow up happy and healthy and safe, and she tries her hardest to keep everyone at arm's length so no one cares enough to try and figure out what her story is. But living this kind of solitary life is hard, so she starts to let down her guard. And then when Margaret asks her to help record her life story, she is tremendously intrigued to find out what secrets the old woman has been hiding—but she doesn't realize Margaret is manipulating her.

The New Neighbor is billed as a different twist on Zoe Heller's What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, a book I absolutely loved. And while Margaret's lonely and predatory nature is somewhat similar to Barbara's in Heller's book, I found the tales Margaret told to be a little unclear, and at points I wasn't sure if what she was saying really happened or she was just using the story to manipulate Jennifer into divulging her own secrets. I felt that Leah Stewart was setting the plot up for a confrontation that never happened, and while I was glad the story wasn't that predictable, I still wanted more.

I absolutely loved Stewart's earlier novel, The Myth of You and Me, and devoured it in practically one sitting several years ago. While The New Neighbor isn't as strong as that book, Stewart's talent for storytelling and character development (even unlikeable characters) is still evident, making this book an intriguing if not entirely satisfying read.

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