Wild Heart

I can’t remember where or when I had this conversation, but I do remember once asking Megan Abbott that “is there anything more noir than the suburbs?” I know it had to do with her brilliant novel The End of Everything, but I don’t remember if it was a bar conversation or if we were on a panel or what. I spent four and a half years living in an actual suburb when I was growing up–grades six through sophomore in high school–and while my family has always been loners (not getting involved in neighborhood groups, barely knowing the neighbors, keeping mostly to ourselves), so we didn’t get the full experience of the cattiness, the bitchiness, or the “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality that are such a rich mine for crime fiction.

On the other hand, we really couldn’t keep up with the Joneses. In our suburb, we were on the lower end of the economic scale than most of the kids my sister and I went to school with, and the longer we lived there, the higher that economic scale continued to go. And there was a lot of strangeness in our suburb–I really do need to write Where the Boys Die and You’re No Good, the two books based on the suburb in which we lived–murders and drugs and undoubtedly affairs and so forth. A famous wife-killer was from our suburb, Drew Peterson. When I was a freshman in high school a junior boy and his girlfriend–a senior–murdered someone over drugs.

And that doesn’t take into consideration all the crimes that were probably going on at the time that no one thought anything about–date rapes and sexual assaults, child abuse, etc.–because nobody talked about them (I found out, for example, that one of my classmates–someone I knew and liked an awful lot–was being sexually and emotionally abused by her father; I never knew until about twenty years later).

Yikes.

Tara Laskowski’s second novel (and Anthony Award finalist!) The Mother Next Door is more evidence that I was right about suburbs being a dark place.

The moms were having a party. I watched from across the street, through my living room window, as aI ate my dinner of chicken piccata on the couch, sipping a hefty glass of merlot.

At dusk, they arrived one by one from the houses around the cul-de-sac, the glow of their phones like fireflies in the dying light. Dressed stylish but casual, ponytails and makeup, jeans and heels.

Viciously, effortlessly powerful.

The blonde mom was hosting. The one I’d noticed walking an oversize dog around the cul-de-sac, cell phone to her ear. She seemed to know everyone, always paused by one porch or another while her dog sniffed in the grass. Yes, my new neighbors were social butterflies. I observed their fluttering hugs as they converged in front of the house. My view inside was limited–a hallway beyond the screen door, painted red, like the inside of a mouth, and at the end, the corner of a giant island in the center of the kitchen where I imagined they set their Tupperware trays and booze.

The Mother Next Door is set in a toney, elite suburb of the Washington DC metro area known as Ivy Woods. Our primary point-of-view character, Theresa, has just moved into a lovely cul-de-sac with her daughter and her husband of a year, who has been hired as principal at Woodard High School–a very top level school, which makes Theresa an appealing target for friendship by the highly competitive moms at the school. Theresa went to college locally, and is now returning, using her connection to one of her professors–they had an affair when she was a student–whose father is school superintendent, to land her husband his job. Theresa has a secret–as do the other four moms who live around the same cul-de-sac–known as the Ivy Five (although there were only four until Theresa moved in and became one of them). Theresa trying to negotiate this strange new world for herself–as well as keeping her secrets, always afraid someone else in the group is going to stumble over one of them.

But the other moms also are hiding a terrible secret–one alluded to in emails and private messages from a mysterious account called “Ivy Woods”–making threats to expose them all and “what they did.” Halloween is approaching, and the Ivy Five are very well known for their massive Halloween block party…so as they try to figure out costumes and decorations, they are also trying to figure out who they can trust, who they can’t, and who could possibly know all their secrets. Our other point of view character is Kendra, the alpha of the group (think Madeline from Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which this reminded me of a lot), with her great job, her ruthless efficiency, and her mad organizing skills.

There’s also an urban legend about the woods behind their houses–Ghost Girl, who fell to her death from a bridge over a railroad track and who now haunts the woods at Halloween, the night she died.

It’s quite the concoction Laskowski has pulled off here, and the way she manages to humanize all of her characters–despite their weaknesses and their really (in some cases) deep flaws–makes the reader engage with and care about them, and the deeper you get into the book, the harder it is to put it down for even just a moment to get something to drink or to go to the bathroom.

Highly recommended.