A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD
Therese Anne Fowler’s latest book, A Good Neighborhood, is one very good novel. The first thing that will catch your attention is the voice of the omniscient third-person narrator who tells us that a young girl lounging beside a pool wants to be alone. The narrator, a member of the neighborhood, then tells the reader that the neighborhood continues to maintain its “tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them.”
Something happens that Sunday afternoon in May, something that “will change everything,” and “Later that summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.” And in answer to that question, “For the record: we never wanted to take sides.”
A Good Neighborhood is a story fit for today. It is an old neighborhood, comfortable in its homes and yards with room to live outdoors. Older residents retire, die, and new money moves in, replacing smaller homes with large and grand residences with little need for trees and large yards, gentrification at the suburban real estate level. The pretty teen by the pool has just moved into such a mansion with her younger sister, her mother, and stepfather. Her quiet time poolside is interrupted with a friendly “Hey” from her teenage next-door neighbor. She is startled. She had not known he was there, and he did not “look like her—that is, white.”
I cannot elaborate on the novel’s complex plot without writing a spoiler review, but Fowler has created a solid cast of characters upon which to build her story. Xavier and Juniper are the lynchpins. Xavier’s mother, a black English professor, and widow; Juniper’s mother, a once single mother and secretary who marries her boss, Brad Whitman, Juniper’s stepfather. The North Carolina city of Oak Knoll and it unhurried and comfortable-with-each-other residents are other characters. Xavier’s mother, Valerie, loves her community, her son, and one ancient oak tree that dominates her back yard. The oak is key to the novel. The new mansion, Brad Whitman’s edifice to himself, was built after razing an old home and most of its yard. The impact of that digging has placed the life of Valerie’s oak as well as the community of Oak Knoll in jeopardy.
Race and its place in gentrification, education, socializing, and every aspect of civilized life, plays a major role. Touchy topics, but Fowler is a master storyteller and handles it with gritty grace.
So, how do I convince you to read (and buy) A Good Neighborhood without telling you what happened to the teens, the parents, and the community? This is a powerful story, powerfully written, and a book for everyone: women, men, and teens. The issues of community, parenting, sex, greed, race, responsibility, honesty, and love are woven together in a tale that will last far longer than the time it takes to read it. If you belong to a book club, A Good Neighborhood is a title that will likely raise the bar for lively discussions. – Sunny Solomon
Also available by Therese Anne Fowler: Z, A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald; A Well-Behaved Woman, A Novel of the Vanderbilts/; Souvenir; Exposure
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