Ellie Monago’s Neighborly (which I picked up as a Kindle First selection) has a solid enough premise: a young couple with a newborn baby move into their dream neighborhood only to find out things aren’t what they seem. The perfect neighborhood with a terrible secret isn’t a very original idea, but definitely can prove entertaining in the right hands. Luckily, Monago spins out a fun thriller that delivers a surprising amount of twists in its second half.
The story is told from the perspective of Kat, wife of Doug and mother of Sadie, who just moved to a cozy little home in Aurora Village (or the AV, as it is called for most of the book – an unfortunate abbreviation for Japanese idol fans). While everyone in the AV is quite welcoming and the neighborhood seems like a dream come true, a puzzling message left for Kat makes her wonder if somebody is out to get her. This possible threat to her newfound happiness only heightens the tension she already feels about being inadequate compared to all the other wives and mothers of the AV, which in turn further compounds the angst she feels about a very significant secret she has kept from everyone in her life, including husband Doug.
Kat’s narration in the first half was often oppressive – as a character she was intensely self-conscious and exceedingly paranoid about how she thought others were judging her. I think that was supposed to be the point, that we were supposed to see how obsessed Kat was about making a good impression and how insecure she felt about her ability to achieve this. Moments of elation would turn to harsh disparagement on the turn of a dime and it would just get exhausting at times. If this had continued for the entirety of the novel, I probably would’ve given up at some point.
Thankfully, the intensity of Kat’s voice shifts by the middle of the novel – gaining a clearer stance on key decisions foisted on her, becoming much more determined on certain courses of action and no longer threatening to spin out of trans-urban existential despair. It’s at that halfway point that the original threat on Kat’s domestic happiness gives way to a whole new kind of pressure, one that came as a genuine surprise to me though it was clearly telegraphed early on. And from there, several more significant twists are played out – including how the novel itself is narrated! – as the story barreled to a conclusion that felt inevitable in some ways but was also very surprising in other aspects.
That sudden twist in the narration was truly shocking and exciting and made me want to stand up and cheer for what Monago managed to pull off. It served an important purpose and shifted the way one looked at the entire situation, heightening the tension of the last third of the story and raising as many questions as it answered. The novel started as a comedy of manners but as the climax neared it became much more of a thriller with uncertain allegiances and hints of betrayal. The novel was only mildly bemusing at first, but by the end it had me thoroughly enthralled.
If I had to take issue with anything about Neighborly, it’s the prologue: we have a social media flash forward to the end of the story, promising a big bloody event that hung over the proceedings in a distasteful manner. I’m guessing it was supposed to signal to the reader that there will be thriller-level violence, just be patient and you’ll find out why. But given the whiplash twists the second half delivers, this heavy foreshadowing just felt forced and even was a bit of a spoiler in the bad sense. Your mileage may vary, but I really didn’t think this novel needed to start with such a crutch.
Still, I truly enjoyed Neighborly and was glad to have read it. It’s a great reminder of how readers love the ride when the rug is pulled out from under them.