My sister recently noted, in a somewhat snippy tone, that she tends to avoid books about women in our stage of life. This is the phase where strangers no longer address us as “miss” or (cringe) “mom”; we’re “ma’am” or simply invisible. We are now the ages of women in detergent commercials.
I’ll be the first to admit: Midlife can be depressing territory in the hands of the wrong author, but it also has the potential to inspire stories of unexpected freedom and next-level friendship. L. Alison Heller hits these notes in her witty, hyperlocal mystery, THE NEIGHBOR’S SECRET (Flatiron, 336 pp., $27.99), which follows a suburban book club through a year of travails in a sleepy subdivision.
The novel begins, as many book club events do, with a bossy email. A punctuation-happy resident of Cottonwood Estates invites fellow readers to the first meeting of the year. There’s a call for themed snacks, and when the day arrives, members sip Lolita Lemondrops while chatting about Nabokov. They’re all women. “There had been a man in the group last year,” Heller writes. “But he was notably absent tonight, scared off, perhaps, by last spring’s startlingly passionate discussion of that menopause book.”
We meet Jen Chun-Pagano, whose son, Abe, has been expelled from Foothills Charter School for stabbing a classmate with an X-acto knife. And Annie Perley, whose burdens include an unambitious husband (but at least he can pull off a man bun), a 14-year-old daughter who got drunk at a community event and the indignity of having the only one-car garage in the neighborhood. And finally, there’s Lena Meeker, a wealthy widow whose backyard is home to the very tree that gave Cottonwood Estates its name. We know that Lena has something to hide, and that Annie’s connection to her goes further back (and much deeper) than she’s letting on.
The book club cycles through a grief memoir, a psychological thriller and a “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” copycat starring mittens instead of jeans. The women organize a slew of traditional-bordering-on-oppressive gatherings and the subdivision is plagued by vandalism — smashed pumpkins, the torching of a “Thankfulness Tree” and other atrocities triggering rounds of aggrieved emails. (In real life, I would have forwarded these messages to my sister with a note saying, “Make it stop,” but I thoroughly enjoyed reading them over someone else’s shoulder.)