INCLUDES AN EXCERPT OF RENDELL’S FINAL NOVEL, DARK CORNERS
From crime legend Ruth Rendell, a psychologically intriguing novel about an old murder that sends shockwaves across a group of astonishingly carnal and appetiteful elderly friends: “Refined, probing, and intelligent…never less than a pleasure” (USA TODAY).
In the waning months of the second World War, a group of children discover a tunnel in their neighborhood outside London. For that summer of 1944, the subterranean space becomes their “secret garden,” where the friends play games, tell their fortunes, and perform for each other.
Six decades later, construction workers make a grisly discovery beneath a house on the same land: a tin box containing two skeletal hands, one male and one female. As the hands make national news, the friends come together once again, to recall their long ago days for a detective. Then the police investigation sputters, and the threads holding their friendship together begin to unravel. Is the truth buried amid the tangled relationships of these aging men and women and their memories? Will it emerge before it’s too late?
Stephen King says, “no one surpasses Ruth Rendell when it comes to stories of obsession, instability, and malignant coincidence.” In The Girl Next Door—“yet another gem” (The Washington Post)—Rendell brilliantly shows that the choices people make, and the emotions behind them, remain as potent in late life as they were in youth. “Rendell’s wit, always mordant, has never been sharper than when she skewers patronizing assumptions about the elderly” (Chicago Tribune).
This reading group guide for The Girl Next Door includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The discovery of two skeletal hands in a tin box excavated from a building site in a London suburb has dramatic and surprising effects on a group of childhood friends. Though the police investigation into the macabre artifacts grinds to a halt, each of the former playmates—now in their seventies and eighties—is drawn back to a memorable summer near the end of World War II that has had a lasting impact on their adult lives. Michael, sent away from home after his mother disappeared, must decide whether his lonely childhood obscured even darker secrets about the adults in his life. Alan escapes his passionless marriage to steady, conventional Rosemary, only to find that his affair with the enticing widow Daphne is more complex than he dreamed. In the end, as their lives entwine, the mystery of the tin box leaves no one unscathed. With her trademark acuity and sharp characterization, legendary writer Ruth Rendell paints a deft portrait of the appetites, heartbreaks, and intrigue of later life.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. “In those days you had to get married. There were no two ways about it” (p. 1). In part, The Girl Next Door is an investigation of traditional marriage—its rewards, its obligations, and the ways couples are viewed by others. Compare and contrast several of the unions portrayed in the novel, including Anita and John Winwood, Rosemary and Alan Norris, Michael and Vivien Winwood, Freya and David, and Stanley and Helen Batchelor. What does each partner provide the other? In what ways do these marriages improve or stymie the characters’ lives?
2. What is the significance of setting the characters’ childhood in World War II? How does the specter of the war overshadow the novel?
3. Rendell introduces us to two murderous characters in John Winwood, whose killings open the novel, and Rosemary Norris, an unlikely assassin. Contrast John Winwood’s murders and their aftermath with Rosemary’s attack on Daphne. How do their deadly impulses change each of these characters and their relationships to others?
4. In your opinion, which character seems to be the most afraid of death and aging? Why? How does this fear inform his or her actions in the book?
5. “Life hadn’t been unhappy, only dull” (p. 97). For Alan, boredom seems to be an inherent accompaniment to growing older, whereas many of the characters seem intent on satisfying their urges and living fully in old age. What do you make of Rendell’s views?
6. Rendell makes the distinction between growing older and growing up (p. 124). Discuss the moments when this novel’s characters become “grown-ups.” You might consider Michael’s relationship to his father, Zoe and the lady on the train, as well as Daphne, especially in her childhood relationship with John Winwood. What do these moments of growing up have in common?
7. We often equate age with wisdom, but The Girl Next Door questions that assumption by introducing us to characters who are questioning their lives and their choices. Who do you think are the wisest characters in the novel? Who are the most naïve?
8. What effect does caring for Clara Moss have on Michael and the Batchelors? How does it impact their senses of themselves and of aging?
9. “‘Did you see that?’ she said as the door closed behind them. ‘He had his arm round her like they were young.’ ‘Maybe they feel young.’” (pp. 88–89). Is age more about how you feel or how you act?
10. How does Rendell parody the younger characters in the novel, including Freya, Fenella, and Detective Inspector Quell?
11. Though The Girl Next Door is an ensemble drama, who would you characterize as the book’s protagonist? Who pushes most of its action forward? Similarly, which character do you think is most changed by the discovery of the hands?
12. Rendell is best known for her mystery and psychological suspense novels. In what ways is The Girl Next Door a typical mystery? In what ways does it confound your expectations for the genre?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Ruth Rendell is a legend in literary suspense fiction. Her work is regularly lauded by readers and reviewers alike. She published The Girl Next Door at the age of eighty-four. Enhance your meeting by getting to know her better. Watch video interviews with her as a group, read profiles on her writing, and investigate some of her other bestselling works to better appreciate her storied career.
2. According to the national Administration on Aging (www.aoa.gov), the population of American adults over the age of sixty-five numbers 39.6 million, and the elderly are living longer than ever. By 2030, there will be about 72.1 million older Americans, more than double their number in 2000. And according to caregiver.org, about 52 million people provide care for adults. Find out if any members of your book club care for older parents, relatives, or friends. If they are comfortable, have them share their experiences, both the challenges and pleasures.
3. Evoke a World War II childhood by playing music that was popular in London in 1944. Top artists for the year included Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Nat “King” Cole, the Mills Brothers, and Ella Fitzgerald. Create a playlist and listen to the sounds of the era as you discuss The Girl Next Door.
Ruth Rendell (1930–2015) won three Edgar Awards, the highest accolade from Mystery Writers of America, as well as four Gold Daggers and a Diamond Dagger for outstanding contribution to the genre from England’s prestigious Crime Writers’ Association. Her remarkable career spanned a half century, with more than sixty books published. A member of the House of Lords, she was one of the great literary figures of our time.