A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by St. Martin's Press
Publication date: March 10, 2020
Genres: Contemporary, Fiction, Social Issues
I’ve enjoyed Therese Anne Fowler’s historical fiction for years, especially her novel Z, about Zelda Fitzgerald. So, I was interested to see what she would do with a novel about contemporary American life—a topic that provides more extravagant fodder every day as the social divisions in the country continue to expand. A Good Neighborhood hits at one of the bastions of the American dream: the home. Fowler takes two disparate families in one lovely Southern neighborhood and makes them share a property line in their backyards. Sadly, it goes as well as one would expect these days.
Valerie and her biracial son, Xavier, have lived in Oak Knoll for his entire life. He is a gifted musician who will be headed off to a prestigious arts college in the fall. She is a leader in the neighborhood, fostering a sense of community and working to keep neighborly relations thriving. When the house behind theirs is sold, torn down, and replaced with a McMansion and pool that necessitated all the old-growth trees being chopped down, Valerie is upset. She is a professor of ecology and plant life is her life so the wanton destruction of trees for modern luxuries doesn’t sit well. Still, she is determined to be friendly. The Whitmans seem nice, even if the father, who made the money for their new home with his growing HVAC company, initially thinks Xavier is a gardener and tries to hire him. They have a daughter, Juniper, and before too long the two teens are sneaking off to spend time alone together.
The novel, while packed with plot, feels predictable. As tragic and wrong as it is, there are few surprises when a black teenager, even a gifted one, secretly starts dating a white girl from a conservative background. Fowler keeps piling the stereotypes on with the Whitmans—the good-old-boy father who’s secretly racist, the mother who turns a blind eye to anything that doesn’t fit her perception of perfection, and the entire patriarchal conservative Christian movement. Here Fowler decides to go all-in by having Juniper make a Purity Promise with her father. Which I find enormously problematic no matter the faith, thanks to beliefs like this:
A young woman’s virginity, her purity, was her superpower…
None of it feels new, even if it is still real enough to be creepy.
In the last year the collective voice in novels has become the literary device du jour. I’m going to step away from the pack and say that I’m getting tired of it. When it’s done well it can be an interesting plot enhancement. In A Good Neighborhood it quickly moves from a source of additional information to an intrusive force that does nothing more than chime in to tell the reader something important is about to happen. Let the story tell itself. Stop explaining to me what I’m going to learn.
I realize I sound particularly harsh about A Good Neighborhood. I don’t completely mean it. If you want lots of explosive plot and a fast pace then it’s a great reading option. I like Fowler’s writing style. I just went in expecting something more substantive and it wasn’t there.
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