A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD
Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s Press
March 10, 2020
In a seemingly close-knit neighborhood in North Carolina, a widowed ecology professor, Valerie, is raising her biracial son, Xavier, in the house she bought years ago with her husband—before his sudden death devastated their family and left Xavier without his father. Valerie has considered moving somewhere less “southern,” somewhere where the color of her and her son’s skin doesn’t make them an anomaly. But she can’t leave a house that holds so many memories, especially when Xavier is doing so well and about to go off to college with a scholarship to study classical guitar. She’s content in her life, happy to teach, raise her son, and look after her beautiful yard, including the stunning old oak tree in their backyard, the one that reminds her of her life before her husband passed.
So she’s not thrilled when Mr. Big Shot Brad Whitman moves in with his nervous wife and quiet stepdaughter next door, demolishing the existing home and yard to make way for his giant “smart” mansion and obnoxious pool—damaging significant portions of her majestic oak’s root system in the process. Within months of the Whitman’s home renovation, Valerie knows her beloved tree is a goner. But she can’t bring herself to “work something out amicably” with egotistical Brad since he clearly doesn’t think he’s part of the problem. Instead she chooses to sue the Whitmans—only realizing too late that her son is secretly dating Brad’s stepdaughter. Now the relationship between the two families has become exponentially more complicated…and potentially explosive.
I’ve been hesitant to write a review for this book. The overwhelming opinion about A Good Neighborhood is that it is phenomenal. Most people praise it for tackling big issues in an emotionally gripping way, all while using a unique narrator (the neighborhood “we”) to tell the story.
Unfortunately, not only did I not like the “we” narrator—I thought it was inconsistent, clunky, and confusing—I also simply did not like the way the author presented this story about community, class, racism, and bigotry. Don’t get me wrong. The issues are important; they exist and need to be talked about. But this book is pandering. This book feels manipulative, like a hollow liberal propaganda piece meant to tug at the heartstrings without offering up a thoughtful, nuanced story. (I say this as a liberal myself.)
Almost every single character in this book is one-dimensional. As the reader, I knew EXACTLY how I was supposed to feel about Brad, his wife, his daughter, Valerie, and her son—Brad with his weird sexual fantasies that make him disgusting and completely unlikable yet still inexplicably adored by almost everyone; his wife with her vapid, doe-eyed idiocy; his sheltered stepdaughter with zero emotional insight or self-awareness who can’t even seem to speak full sentences when asked.
I’ll admit that Valerie is a slightly more layered character, which made her easier to relate to and appreciate, but then Xavier… Good grief, Xavier with his infinite goodness, cleanness, perfection, destined to become a martyr. I just couldn’t buy it.
This isn’t a story, it’s a gimmick. It’s superficial and heavy-handed, a device to badger readers into feeling a certain way about a certain topic. But all this book did, in my opinion, is take away from actual important issues like racism and an unfair criminal justice system and what it means to exist with people who are different from us. I know we’ve all been having this conversation over the controversy of American Dirt, but, seriously, if you’re going to write a story about an experience or ethnicity or injustice or whatever that you haven’t experienced yourself, well then you better get it pitch perfect. It’s okay for authors to tell stories that aren’t their own; that’s what fiction is about! But do it justice; get it right. Otherwise you end up with garbage like this: a histrionic mess of exhausted plot tropes that no longer communicate a message with any real authenticity or power.
Many thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the ARC! I love you, SMP! Please don’t blacklist me… 😬
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