I followed Barbara Delinsky from romance into women’s fiction, secure in the knowledge that I would find interesting characters and situations and, for me at least, the all-important satisfying ending. With one exception, she has not failed me. I assume that authors choose to move away from the romance genre because of their ability to write books that do not center so completely on the love story and thus permit them to explore important issues more fully. In The Woman Next Door, Delinsky’s issue is infertility and the impact of the contemporary technologies that allow couples to achieve that oh-so-desired child.
Graham O’Leary married his Amanda when he was thirty-six and she was thirty. Theirs was a romance of opposites. Graham, a successful landscape contractor, came from a sprawling Irish-American family that placed a high value on family and children. Amanda, a school psychologist with a doctorate, was the only child of a dysfunctional WASP family with parents who had battled their way through life. Both Graham and Amanda agreed that they wanted children of their own, as soon as possible.
With this goal in mind, they bought a lovely new house on a cul-de-sac in the upscale Connecticut town of Woodley. They soon became friends with the three other couples in their small neighborhood: the older couple, Ben and June; the traditional family with their three kids, Karen and Lou; and the modern family, the stay-at-home dad, Russ and his successful businesswoman wife, Georgia. June had died, and to everyone’s surprise, Ben had married a much younger woman, Gretchen. Then, he too died too young.
As the story opens, Amanda is in her office, trying to help one of her students, Jordie, the troubled son of Lou and Karen. She is also watching the hours pass, praying that this time the artificial insemination has taken. After five years of childlessness, she and Graham have turned to technology to help them conceive. Not only do they both want children, but Graham’s family is turning up the pressure. But it is not to be.
Dejected, Amanda drives home. She sees Gretchen in the yard and realizes suddenly that her neighbor is pregnant. But Ben has been gone for a year; he couldn’t possibly have fathered Gretchen’s child. If not he, then who? Gretchen has kept very much to herself; the only men she seems to have had any contact with are her neighbors. As news of the pregnancy spreads, the three wives begin to wonder if their husband could be the father of Gretchen’s baby.
Amanda is appalled at her own suspicions, but she can’t help herself. She knows how the demands of fertility treatments have impacted both their previously great sex life and their relationship. Georgia can’t help wonder; after all, she’s gone so often and Russ is home alone all day. He had the best opportunity. Karen doesn’t need to wonder if her husband might stray; she knows he has in the past. He would be a logical choice to console a lonely widow.
Gretchen’s pregnancy plus events at Amanda’s school help bring the situations in the three families to a head as each couple must reevaluate their relationship and their future.
While Delinsky clearly details the dynamics between the two other couples and brings their situations home to the reader, the focus of the book is on Graham and Amanda and their quest for a child. It is only in the past quarter of a century or so that medicine has truly been able “treat” infertility and most people my age have watched in wonder as advance after advance has upped the chances of a childless couple’s conceiving. The Woman Next Door suggests that this all consuming determination to have a baby has a cost, and it’s not just money.
Delinsky’s skill as a writer can be seen in the reader’s response to Graham and Amanda. While I clearly sympathized with them both and cared about them, I also became a tad bit frustrated with their dilemma and their reactions. I guess as someone who considered and rejected the “let’s try anything to get pregnant” approach, I grew a bit impatient. I was also appalled that this very private aspect of their lives had become such a public matter, although I can only assume that Delinsky did her homework when she portrayed the situation thusly.
The Woman Next Door is the kind of “women’s fiction” that I enjoy. It deals with the lives and challenges of middle class families (OK, upper middle class families). It deals in a pretty realistic fashion with the downside of affluence and excessive expectations. Yet it suggests that with good will and good luck and good intentions and good sense, difficulties can be overcome and life can improve. This is not an Oprah book - thank goodness!