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A Good Neighborhood

Review

A Good Neighborhood

A tragedy has occurred in the lush, tight-knit town of Oak Knoll, North Carolina. Unlike a natural disaster or fateful brush with death, the tragedy at the heart of Therese Anne Fowler’s new novel is the divisive sort --- one that forces friends, families and neighbors to take sides, even when they do not want to do so. Weaving issues of class, race and womanhood with unforgettable characters and a setting as dangerous as it is inviting, Fowler asks readers to consider what it means to be a good neighbor, and how to live alongside those who may be different from you at a time when differences can be seen as flaws or even dangers. In A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD, we see how a community can be ripped apart by its deepest secrets and fears.

Valerie Alston-Holt is a stalwart member of the Oak Knoll community. A hearty mix of ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds, Oak Knoll may pride itself on being inclusive, color-blind and progressive, but as Fowler reveals, it is one thing to take pride in something and quite another to actually act on it. Still, with her dark skin and bright eyes, Valerie is a respected if sometimes laughed-about member of Oak Knoll. Her elderly and less progressive neighbors value her eye for botany as much as they tease her for not using animal products or paying extra for storage containers devoid of plastic. Adding to her appeal is her son, Xavier, a biracial teen who gets straight As, doesn’t mess around with girls and has a gift for classical music that feels nearly supernatural.

But the Alston-Holts have watched all season as the lot next to theirs has been deforested, demolished and topped with a giant, hi-tech house with a gorgeous stone patio and in-ground pool behind it. As the elderly residents of Oak Knoll have died off, gentrification has slithered in, and Valerie is heartbroken to see the ecology of her beloved and verdant town suffer. Enter the Whitmans.

"Meticulously developed and painfully moving, A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD is the perfect book club book. It will leave you speechless, and yet you will find yourself desperate to bring it up, to allow yourself to linger on Fowler’s exquisite prose while pondering the depth of her themes."

Brad Whitman is a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of guy who knows how to get what he wants --- and rarely fails in achieving it. From his gorgeous, always-dressed-for-yoga wife, Julia, to his angelic stepdaughter Juniper and his bright and peppy daughter Lily, Brad really seems to have it all. His arrival in Oak Knoll is somewhat of a highlight; he runs his own HVAC company, and there isn’t a person in town who hasn’t seen his commercials, the ones that make each and every viewer feel like Brad’s favorite customer. As pure and wholesome as he seems on TV, the citizens of Oak Knoll are eager to see him and his family up close. What are they really like? they wonder.

As much as they represent two very different backgrounds, tax brackets and, quite literally, sides of the fence, it is not Valerie and Brad who are the stars of A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD, but rather Xavier and Juniper. From their first meeting at the side of the Whitmans’ pool, the two seem fated for one another in the way that only high school romances can feel. Their attraction is immediate, yet familiar, and though Juniper is known for her commitment to purity --- yes, she even went through with a public ceremony dedicating her virginity to God and, in God’s absence, Brad --- the two strike up a careful friendship that quickly turns into something more, a puppy love backed by real, all-consuming, star-crossed love.

Beyond the obvious disadvantages to Xavier and Juniper’s pairing --- Xavier is black (half-white, but we all know what people see first), and Juniper is white; Xavier is a scholarship student, and Juniper is the daughter of a millionaire --- a historic tree in Valerie and Xavier’s backyard soon thrusts itself between them as well. Valerie, who has deep, emotional ties to the tree, has been watching it closely since construction began on the Whitmans’ property. Because the builder did not disclose its existence, he was able to secure permits that are beginning to kill it. Valerie responds by consulting a lawyer. When she finds out that her lawyer is willing to take on Brad, the builder and even the town to stand up for what is right, she grows starry-eyed with the possibilities. Her intentions are pure, but as the residents of Oak Knoll are eager to tell you, intentions are only half of the story.

With the two families at odds, and their Romeo and Juliet-inspired teens raising the tension, deep-seated secrets and fears among not only the neighbors but also the neighborhood begin to rear their ugly faces. Fowler employs the “we” of the neighborhood to tell the story of what follows, explaining how easily sides are created, destroyed, rebuilt and bolstered as neighbors team up with, deceive and ultimately betray one another in a battle that, while initially centered on a tree, becomes symbolic of so much more. The tree in and of itself is obviously a metaphor for life, particularly the quiet wholesome life people lead in Oak Knoll, but in Fowler’s careful hands it becomes so much more --- a beacon of memory, a statement of pride, and an unwavering faith in the goodness of others and the necessity for community.

What is most impressive about A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD is the sheer amount of research and sensitivity Fowler has taken on to carefully and properly develop her black and biracial characters. She writes microaggressions so carefully you just might miss them --- unless you already have begun picking up on them in real life --- and her portrayal of the prejudices and assumptions Valerie and Xavier face on a day-to-day basis is so precise and detailed that it is sure to open eyes and start some very necessary conversations. But at the same time, Fowler is careful not to turn them into caricatures or tropes --- a near-impossible balance to strike and yet one that she does with such grace that it seems nearly easy (an illusion, of course, but one beautifully maintained).

Meticulously developed and painfully moving, A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD is the perfect book club book. It will leave you speechless, and yet you will find yourself desperate to bring it up, to allow yourself to linger on Fowler’s exquisite prose while pondering the depth of her themes. Although it begins with the knowledge that tragedy is afoot, it is so carefully plotted and unfolded that you will still find yourself shocked by its inevitable end and, more so, that one person could have created a fictional community so full of life, love, fear and hate. Fowler is at the height of her powers here, and she just might ruin you for anyone else.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 13, 2020

A Good Neighborhood
by Therese Anne Fowler

  • Publication Date: March 10, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 1250237270
  • ISBN-13: 9781250237279