Reviewed by Vickie Fang
There is almost no such thing as a good novel anymore. There is good literary fiction, good thriller, good mystery, good historical fiction, good YA, probably even good sci-fi and chick lit, but unless it’s that two-headed monster, the genre-bender, which comes with its own elaborate set of rules, the good novel has largely disappeared from the modern bookshelf. It is for this reason that I am a little surprised that The New Neighbor, a very good novel indeed, was even published.
The New Neighbor opens with a single page that says only this:
The whole world thinks she did it. She knows that. Even in her house
with the doors locked and the blinds down, she can feel the weight of it.
All that certainty.
Yes, I thought, the long, tantalizing white space and engaging rhythms of a great summer thriller. Then, the novel switches its focus to a much older woman who lives nearby, patiently detailing the frustrations and petty humiliations of declining health.
Sometimes I try to manage cane and book and coffee all at once,
and the result is always coffee stains, or burns, or at the very
least a wet book and a diminished cup of coffee. . . Impatience
and old age are not compatible.
The New Neighbor continues by alternating between the older woman and her younger neighbor with the careful observation and confident voice of literary fiction. As we learn more about the younger woman’s life, we enter the concerns of middle class ladies: the growing needs of young children, sometimes disappointing husbands, and, most of all, the intricate networks of female friendships. As we learn more about the older woman, we are plunged into the vivid world of a World War II medical corps as she relives her traumatic past. By my count, this book is a literary fiction, chick-lit, historical novel that still succeeds as a mystery. Somehow, Stewart keeps the tension alive, unfolding a rich who-done-what that plumbs the past while simultaneously making its often painful way through the present. The result is immensely satisfying for the reader, though far less so for the characters. We see a mystery solved. They are left with life in all of its complexities and missed opportunities.