We’ve all had the experience: the acquaintance made at a party, a meeting, a dinner with friends. We should hit it off automatically; we have lots in common. He or she is witty, presentable, likable. We share the same demographic, speak the same language. But, in the end, something is missing. We go our separate ways, parting pleasantly after an enjoyable evening. The encounter was fun, diverting even, but that indefinable spark is missing. I’ve always stolen a term from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables to define the relationships characterized by that spark – “kindred spirits.”
Elizabeth Noble’s The Girl Next Door falls into the pleasant acquaintance category. The Girl Next Door is a pleasant read, a frothy romp through the lives of the residents of a New York City apartment building. It is engaging, by turns poignant and humorous, but without the depth to grab a reader, shake her by the soul, and build a lasting connection. The Girl Next Door is a rainy day, cup of coffee or tea read.
In the residents of the novel’s apartment building, Noble has created an engaging cast. Though drawn rather too closely to type, somewhat in the manner of an English drawing room comedy, the characters of The Girl Next Door are largely a captivating lot. Instead of the spinster, the peer, the vicar, the colonel, and the matron, Noble has given us the modern day American equivalents: the expatriate newlyweds, the gay couple, the wealthy scion, the independent, prickly career girl, the would-be socialite, the wise widow, the helicopter-mom, the perfect family, and – yes — the spinster.
Although I would prefer for the characters to have a bit more depth and less predictability, I did find myself caring about their stories. Noble writes from the perspective of each character. This leap frog between points of view is somewhat disorienting at first despite her use of nametag headings for each section. Once I got past the feeling of a developing migraine caused by the first couple of chapters and settled into the book, the multiple lives were interesting and easy to follow.
The Girl Next Door reads as a collection of subplots rather than an overarching storyline. If there is a primary story to The Girl Next Door it is that of Eve Gallagher. The wife of an ambitious banker, Eve has been uprooted from her native England as her husband’s job relocates them to New York City. Once in Manhattan, Eve finds herself unfamiliarly adrift in a city that seems to be populated entirely by the thin, chic, superficial, and successful. With Ed, her husband, engrossed in his career, Eve soon grows lonely and disenchanted with the adventure of their new American life. Desperate for an interest of her own, Eve seizes upon a posted invitation to join a committee to create a garden on the roof of the apartment building. At this first meeting, Eve is introduced to the other residents of the building, and the previously separate lives begin to intersect.
At the rooftop meeting, Eve meets the other characters whom Noble has introduced briefly to the reader. Violet Wallace, the organizer of the committee, is an elderly widow who, like Eve, had followed a husband from England to Manhattan in her thirties. Violet’s past is revealed in a narrative that parallels Eve’s experiences. Rachael Schulman appears as the perfect mother and wife, with the ideal life. Of course, we expect almost immediately that the perfection will crack somewhere. Todd and Gregory are the gay equivalent of Rachael and her husband David – smooth, stable, and perfect.
Unfortunately, unlike with the Schulman’s relationship, Noble does nothing to deepen the characters of Todd and Greg, making them cardboard fillers, stock “types” rather than real people. This is perhaps the most significant problem with The Girl Next Door. Elizabeth Noble has developed such a populous cast that multiple characters lack development and proper storylines. They begin to feel as though they have been dropped into the book as fillers. I would have preferred to know more about the main characters than to wonder throughout the book when Madison, or Todd, or Maria was going to contribute significantly to the story.
I would have liked to feel the depth of Violet’s story a bit more. Violet and her subplot count as almost-kindred spirits. I also wanted to know more about Kimberly Kramer, the brittle, overprotective mother of Avery and unsympathetic wife of Jason. Kimberly is interesting because of, rather than despite, her flaws. With Kim, one feels that an actual, scared, hurt person lurks beneath the controlling nastiness. Noble reaches into the realities of emotion better with Kim than with her more likable characters.
Noble’s characters do develop and grow as the story moves along, yet their growth feels too structured, too pat. They are appropriate to their plot even in the face of disappointment and tragedy.
This may be the missing spark that distinguishes a work of fiction as exemplary – the ability to create characters who respond to their lives believably and imperfectly. While The Girl Next Door misses this mark, it is an enjoyable read, full of pleasant acquaintances.