Published by Touchstone
Publication date: July 7th 2015
At 91 Margaret Riley lives a life of isolation on the shore of a small lake in the mountains of Tennessee. Across the lake is another house that has stood empty for years since its owner died but suddenly fills with life again as Jennifer and her 4-year-old son move in. The New Neighbor is Leah Stewart’s novel about Margaret and her sudden fascination with her new neighbor. A fascination that starts from loneliness and builds into something more.
Stewart splits The New Neighbor between Margaret’s point-of-view and chapters about Jennifer’s life. It is clear early on that Jennifer does indeed have something to hide but what she is running from seems to be exposure not a person. As her backstory fills in it becomes clear that her marriage to her high school sweetheart was not a happy one but instead of the more expected abuse story we learn that her husband, Tommy, was a drunk. Not a mean one, just a falling-down, sloppy one who couldn’t really take care of or protect his family. As Jennifer’s story is shared with the reader it is kept from Margaret, despite her using every weapon in her ‘fragile old woman’ manipulative arsenal to get it out of her. Stewart teases out the tension between Margaret, in her determination to get Jennifer’s secrets, and Jennifer, to keep them. She goes so far as to hire Jennifer to give her massages but even as she begins to open up, Jennifer does not. It is only when Margaret crosses the final boundary and enters Jennifer’s house when she’s not at home that she discovers information to force Jennifer’s hand.
Given that there are a lot of suspense thrillers out there, there needs to be a reason to read The New Neighbor and Stewart creates one in Margaret. A 91-year-old woman does not sound tension-inducing but add the proper backstory and a misanthropic streak combined with a need for attention and you’ve got a character who won’t let go. That Stewart also infuses Jennifer’s story with the perfect amount of ambiguity and emotional conflict is just one more reason The New Neighbor hits the spot as a satisfying summer read.