The Neighbor, Lisa Gardner

Monday, June 25, 2012

I realize that I am in the minority in this, but I have always been uncomfortable with the sex offender registry. In our justice system, the idea is that you do the crime and do your time, and then once your debt to society has been paid you are (almost) free to live your life as you see fit-hopefully in a law-abiding manner.  I understand that sex offenders, especially those that prey on children, are different.  Recidivism is very high, and true pedophiles have some defect in the wiring of their brain that makes them very hard to treat, even with intensive intervention.  That said, I'm not sure that the "one-size-fits-all" nature of the sex offender registry adequately addresses the difference between the 19 year old who has sex with his 15 year old girlfriend and the serial rapist or child molester.

This question, and the resulting issues around statutory rape and child sexual assault, are at the heart of Lisa Gardner's mystery The Neighbor.  Sandra and Jason Jones live a quiet, solitary life in the Boston neighborhood known as "Southie" with their daughter Ree. When Sandra disappears one night, leaving her four year old daughter alone in the house, Jason is fearful that the past they have worked so hard to put behind them is coming back to haunt them.  Sure that he is going to be arrested at any time, Jason tries to protect his daughter from the police and reporters, as well as from her maternal grandfather, with whom the couple has had no contact since their marriage, and who appears seeking custody of Ree after he sees news of his daughter's disappearance.  Jason and Sandra have a highly unusual marriage, and detectives quickly determine that Jason is hiding something, making him a likely suspect.  Meanwhile, they also have a pretty solid person of interest in the Jones' neighbor, a convicted sex offender who is on the sex offender registry.  But Jason appears to be trying harder to cover up evidence and keep his daughter away from questioning than find his wife, and Detective D.D. Warren feels like she is racing against time to find Sandra, before it is too late.

The novel is told alternately from the first person memories of Sandra, the first person experience of the sex offender neighbor, and in the third person narrative of D.D. Warren and Jason Jones.  Gardner takes her time doling out the dirty secrets of all of the characters, but in a way that draws you in rather than making you frustrated.  The most interesting thing about this book, though, is that I ended up rooting for the main characters, even after it became clear that they should not, on the surface, be sympathetic characters.  But that's where the subtleties of the effects of childhood abuse and sexual assault come in.  We as a society seem to be much more comfortable with black and white than with shades of gray.  Some of the things that the main characters do in this book are reprehensible, but Gardner presents it in such a way that while you can't condone, you can almost understand.  Not the abuse of children-the evil nature of that is never in question.  But the effects that is has on the children as they become adults, the way that it skews their mindset and their ability to have relationship, and the actions they may take as a result-those are harder to pass judgement on.

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