Cottonwood Estates seems like an idyllic neighborhood to raise a family in. It’s affluent, populated by overworked dads and over-involved moms, and thanks to the gossipy monthly book club, everyone knows everyone else’s business. In The Neighbor’s Secret, author L. Alison Heller scratches away at this suburban facade to reveal secrets that are slowly bringing the small community to the verge of collapse.
Through brief, interstitial passages, the reader learns that not only is a murder about to be committed, but also that another one was covered up years ago. The question remains: Who are the killers?
Annie is harboring a secret from 15 years ago and worrying that her eighth grade daughter, Laurel, might be destined to repeat it. Laurel is acting out, getting drunk with friends at the annual Fall Fest and keeping secrets from her ever-vigilant mother. Jen is similarly worried about her young son, Abe, with good reason: Abe has been expelled from school and diagnosed as a sociopath. Jen struggles with fear of her own son and guilt over her abilities as a parent, all while hiding his diagnosis from the teachers at Abe’s new school as well as from her friends and neighbors. Finally, there is Lena. A widow and empty nester, Lena watches the neighborhood but keeps apart from it socially. She understands that nothing in their peaceful community is what it seems. When a vandal begins targeting homes, the petty property crimes set off a chain of events that will end in one explosive, deadly night.
Heller excels at the complex characterization required to engage readers, resulting in a book that’s truly impossible to put down. The myriad anxieties her characters feel—fear for their children, their reputation, their community—are entirely relatable. A sense of dread and foreboding permeates the narrative. We know a murder is coming; Laurel, Abe and Lena all seem on the verge of imploding. With such a wonderful buildup and a truly surprising finish, The Neighbor’s Secret is a delight to read.