This story is a tapestry of the inner thoughts of five female residents of Pleasant Court, a quiet suburban street. Their stories are interwoven along with the story of a young woman who unexpectedly went into labour with her first child and experienced a series of tragic events, including postnatal psychosis. As the shocking events in her life are gradually revealed, a sense of foreboding builds, because it is obvious that the two worlds are eventually going to collide and things will be messy. The identity of this young woman, and the way she fits into events at Pleasant Court, remains hidden until the final chapters.
Hepworth spends time introducing each of the characters individually, which is time-consuming and causes the story to build gradually. This technique sets the scene of an ordinary group of neighbours, going about daily life with young families. On the surface everything appears routine and mundane.
On first appearances, Essie is the resident to watch. After the birth of her first child she experienced postnatal depression and left her daughter at the park. She has recently had a second child and her family, especially her mother Barbara, are watching her carefully. The other residents all know what happened, but try to be discreet.
As the story gradually unfolds it becomes evident that all of the families have secrets. Slowly the cracks begin to appear. Each woman is absorbed in her own chaos and yet valiantly working to keep up appearances so their neighbours think that they have it all together. It is not until a crisis occurs, that they begin to support each other. There is a line towards the end that sums it up well: “The less perfect things were, the more likely they were to be real”.
One of the things that I found interesting about this book was the way it explored relational issues from a variety of perspectives. There were two individuals involved in separate extra-marital affairs one male and one female. Thus one of the women is describing the experience of having an affair, while another is describing the experience of finding her husband had had an affair. In both cases there were paternity issues. Postnatal depression is also explored in the same way. One woman is experiencing postnatal depression, and another describes the experience of supporting her husband through postnatal depression. It also looks at the issue of child abduction from a variety of viewpoints.
While The Family Next Door addresses some big themes, it is also a story about the tendency to become absorbed in our own family crisis instead of reaching out, the insular nature of families and the value of community.