By Sinclair Smith.
Randy Bell’s life is just about perfect. She has an adoring boyfriend in Ted, a reliable best friend in Alice; she’s on the cheerleading squad; she’s ever so sensible, responsible… and boring. Which is why her father has no qualms about leaving her unsupervised for weeks on end, in their ramshackle old house, in a deserted part of town. But everything changes when sexy, sophisticated Julian moves into the long-abandoned house next door and sweeps Randy off her feet. She quits cheerleading, breaks up with Ted, and starts living recklessly. At Julian’s behest, she carries out cruel practical jokes on her obnoxious teachers and classmates. Randy can shake off the occasional slight tugs on her conscience, because the jokes give her a thrill, and, more importantly, she gets to laugh about them afterwards, with Julian.
But then his demands become sinister. He wants her to carry out pranks that could seriously hurt the target, and when Alice upbraids Randy for her recent behaviour, Julian insists she cut her best friend out of her life. Soon, Randy is terrified of her new boyfriend – fearful of what his next sick idea might be, and what harm she herself might be capable of causing.
A lot of The Boy Next Door feels like analogy for being in an abusive relationship. Julian overwhelms Randy with his charm, and then tries to change her personality and isolate her from her friends so he can gain complete control. It’s a strange choice for a PH entry whose register definitely aims towards the younger end of the YA market, with its simple language, massive font and overuse of capital letters (to signify shouting or any expression of emotion). You have to wonder whether the message isn’t going to fly over the heads of the eleven year old readers. Anyone older might get the point, but will also be frustrated by the childish storytelling.
Then the rug is pulled from beneath our feet! And The Boy Next Door suddenly ‘reveals’ something far more troubling is afoot. Ah-ha, we think, the tweenie-bopper-friendly preamble was a ruse to make the dark twist all the more shocking… Actually, no. We end up back on the original path – and all too quickly; potential wasted, ambition abandoned. Without that brief sojourn into psychological thriller, The Boy Next Door would be totally unremarkable. But those twenty-odd pages inject some genuine suspense into the story, and earn it a slightly less woeful rating.
There’s little to fear in The Boy Next Door, other than in the aforementioned section, when our imaginations are led down a deceptively sinister garden path. Julian is supposed to be the antagonist of the piece, but he’s more of an arsehole than a villain; annoying, rather than scary. And Randy, our ‘heroine’, behaves so shadily at the start when she sabotages her entire life at other people’s expense and is rude and unpleasant to everyone, that she banks no sympathy. If she was more likeable, her suffering towards the end might have made the finale more thrilling. As it is, her redemption comes too late in the day and at too small a price, and had the worst happened, it would still have been better than Randy Bell deserves.