cover image The Stranger Next Door

The Stranger Next Door

Amelie Nothomb. Henry Holt & Company, $20 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-4841-4

Readers planning a picturesque retirement in rural France may wish to avoid this black comedy of bad manners, the first book to be published in America by young, prolific Goncourt-nominee Nothomb. mile and Juliette Hazel, lifelong sweethearts married for 43 years, have every expectation of enjoying their golden decades after narrator mile's retirement from teaching high school Classics. Then they meet their next-door neighbor, the surreally taciturn Palamedes Bernardin, whose two-hour housewarming visit chills them to the bone with boredom. Such visits become an unwelcome routine for the Hazels and a strain on their perfect marriage. Author of four other equally sardonic books, Nothomb has as warm a view of human nature as Ivy Compton-Burnett, and her talent for the grotesque reaches a freak-show pitch when Bernardin's obese, retarded ""cyst"" of a wife arrives with him for a stomach-churningly uncouth, mind-numbing dinner. As the Hazels suffer through this existential crisis of etiquette, Nothomb's comic psychology tends toward Gallic stylization: mile descends into unhinged but erudite ranting, and Bernardin commits the ultimate act of rudeness by noisily attempting (and failing) suicide in the middle of the night. Despite its thoroughly un-American premise and tell-don't-show transformation of slapstick into commentary, Nothomb's American debut should win her the respect (if not the love) of readers who aren't already dreaming of their own year in Provence. (Jan.)