An international adoption falters, splintering a coterie of rich suburban friends.
When a narrator begins with “We were modest. We were moneyed. We were all of us self-made and the most successful siblings of our respective families,” the reader knows there is trouble ahead. The storyteller is Nicole Westerhof, a married Boston suburbanite with two grade-school sons who’s on hiatus as a writer and riddled with insecurities. (First-time novelist Serling is a married mother of two in suburban New Jersey.) The prologue is called “What We Thought We Knew” and the epilogue, “What We Knew.” The space in between consists of a slow awakening to the folly of turning one’s clique of friends into a substitute family for “alleviating the boredom and the isolation of middle age.” The fault line appears in the second chapter, when Paige and Gene Edwards, the wealthiest among the group, announce they are adopting a preschooler from Russia. The brittle, imperious Paige and the less-distinctly drawn Gene return from Moscow with a girl they name Winifred Leigh Edwards, whose lazy eye is the first of a string of impairments. Nicole is smitten; Paige—thin, glamorous, and icy in her prematurely white hair—decidedly less so. The Edwards’ friends begin to glimpse cruelty, to suspect neglect and eventually “the black trickle of something dangerous.” Nicole is bracketed between her fierce preoccupation with Winnie and her efforts to keep a distance, via the phone, from an alcoholic sister back in Ohio. Serling, who favors sentence fragments, writes with verve and frequent insight: a happy memory “rising up like a swarm of mosquitoes. Almost painful.” But even as she ratchets the tension, her characters become increasingly hard to care about, particularly the husbands. This weakens the novel’s twist ending. Serling lands on a lethal climax among the privileged, in the vein of Big Little Lies.
A spicy stew of suburban discontent is diluted by the thinness of its characters.