Suzanne Berne's first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood, was a convincing coming-of-age story set in the Washington suburbs during the long, hot summer of 1972, funny and chilling in equal measure. On its publication, Berne was acclaimed as an exciting new voice in American writing and her book went on to win the Orange Prize for women's fiction.
Now, four years on, she has delivered A Perfect Arrangement. Given the burden of expectation, writing it must have been a daunting task - and, unfortunately, it shows. Although Berne has again chosen to write about life in the suburbs, this book often feels lumpen and plodding, and the plot - such as it is - takes far too long to crank up, only to fizzle out depressingly, like a sparkler atop a birthday cake.
Mirella and Howard live in a beautiful but dilapidated old house in a small and conservative New England town. They have two small children, Pearl, who is stubborn and tetchy, and Jacob, who has learning difficulties to which no doctor has yet managed to put a name. Mirella is a hard-pressed divorce lawyer, and must drive in to Boston every morning. Howard, who works in a studio at the bottom of the garden, is an architect with high-minded principles, a dreamer whose beloved projects not everyone in the town understands.
Like every other stressed-out couple in the world, the Goldmans' main difficulty in life is arranging adequate childcare for their offspring. Their troubles seem to be over, however, when a girl called Randi appears at their front door. Sent to them by an agency, she serves up asparagus omelettes and turkey loaf for dinner, makes her own Play-Doh, prints the flyers for the village bazaar and dotes on tiny, mysterious, sealed-in Jacob; it is she who eventually persuades him to utter his first word.
The trouble is that nothing is quite as it seems. Howard and Mirella's marriage is not all that it should be (an affair comes back to haunt him, with destructive results) and neither is the CV of their much-envied nanny. If this sounds predictable, then that's because it is; it is tedious at times, too. Writing about children and childcare and the deadly boredom than can sometimes poison the heart of family life requires great writerly skill; who, after all, is truly gripped by prose about piles of laundry? Not me, for sure, unless the basket is in the careful hands of a Carol Shields or Anne Tyler. The dusty, humdrum corners of domestic life deserve to be written about; but the torch used to illuminate them must be bright, and only flashed in their direction with good reason.
This is not to say that A Perfect Arrangement does not have its moments. Berne is good on the hot jealousy that springs up when a child becomes closer to a nanny than to its mother, and is expert at describing the endless circular arguments that couples have when they are just plain worn out. She has a good ear for the unwittingly witty way in which children speak, even when, as she puts it, the air all about them is "spongy with wrath".
But the best sections of the novel are those in which Berne gets inside the mind of the cuckoo in the nest - Randi, a girl with strange passions and ideas, and a pathological fondness for reinventing herself. As she rattles around the Goldmans' home, endlessly making plans and desperately trying to fathom her employers' haphazard, middle-class approach to life, Berne induces in the reader the same heavy sense of foreboding that made her first novel such a success.
But, in the end, Randi, like all the characters here, is all dressed up with no place to go. What she needs, badly, is a plot; the novel's oddly disturbing climax comes too late to save the day.
Rachel Cooke writes for the Daily Telegraph