A Good Neighborhood – Book Review

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
Published by: St. Martin’s Press
Publish Date: 2020
Genre(s): Fiction, Contemporary Fiction
HB&W Rating: 4
View on Goodreads
Buy on Amazon: Barnes & Noble, Book Depository

It’s trite to say appearances can be deceiving, so we won’t say that. We’ll say no one can be known by only what’s visible. We’ll say most of us hide what troubles and confuses us, displaying instead the facets we hope others will approve of, the parts we hope others will like.

Synopsis

In Oak Knoll, a verdant, tight-knit North Carolina neighborhood, professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her bright and talented biracial son. Xavier is headed to college in the fall, and after years of single parenting, Valerie is facing the prospect of an empty nest. All is well until the Whitmans move in next door?an apparently traditional family with new money, ambition, and a secretly troubled teenaged daughter.

Thanks to his thriving local business, Brad Whitman is something of a celebrity around town, and he’s made a small fortune on his customer service and charm, while his wife, Julia, escaped her trailer park upbringing for the security of marriage and homemaking. Their new house is more than she ever imagined for herself, and who wouldn’t want to live in Oak Knoll? With little in common except a property line, these two very different families quickly find themselves at odds: first, over an historic oak tree in Valerie’s yard, and soon after, the blossoming romance between their two teenagers. 

Told from multiple points of view, A Good Neighborhood asks big questions about life in America today?What does it mean to be a good neighbor? How do we live alongside each other when we don’t see eye to eye??as it explores the effects of class, race, and heartrending star-crossed love in a story that’s as provocative as it is powerful.

Synopsis source: Goodreads

Review

In her experience, some men–well-off white men in particular–were so accustomed to their authority and privelege that they perceived it as a right.

Wow. This book. Just, wow.

I was able to get my hands on an ARC of this book from a friend who’d won it on a Goodreads giveaway. When I saw her review and read the synopsis, I knew I would have to read it, and she so graciously allowed me to borrow it.

This book hit a little too close to home for me in some unexpected ways. The primary theme through the book centers on prejudice on the basis of race and, to some extent, gender. What I didn’t expect was that it would also focus on the undesired sexual attention of a man in a position of power over a girl/woman. It makes sense to the story, in that it further substantiates the sense of entitlement and the authority of this character, but I mention it in case this is a trigger for anyone, like it was for me. Reader beware.

This novel explores the disparity between whites and BIPOC, between socioeconomic classes, and, to a lesser extent, between the genders that is still so relevant today in the wake of the unjustified police brutality against people of color, the #metoo movement, and the power imbalance associated with these things, as well as the very real fear that exists for the victims in each of these scenarios. More specifically, it explores the entitlement and hubris of the wealthy white male in society today, a society which hasn’t come as far as we would have hoped by this point in time.

Those kinds of people are all about keeping their girls and their bloodlines ‘pure.’ Forty-fifty years ago his kind would Lynch you just for looking at her. Maybe they’re not stringing boys up anymore, but the attitudes haven’t gone away.

I don’t think I have ever noted so many passages and quotes in a story as I have in this one. To list them all here would be excessive and likely give away much of the story, but it goes to show just how well-written and thought-provoking this book is.

Why did the church treat sex like a commodity–like the only commodity and in fact the only thing of any real value young women had to offer their future mates? In all those youth group meetings she’d attended, never once did anyone assert that young men who had premarital sex cheapened themselves. Boys and men might get ‘confused’ by lust and its satisfaction, the kids were told. They might make some questionable choices in their confusion. Never, though, were they considered to be at risk of diminishing their value to future prospective spouses.

The author does such a great job of putting us into the characters’ heads, for better or worse as the case may be. It was a very astute portrayal of rich white male entitlement, and how a man might perceive others’ behavior in such a way that it justifies his own behaviors and intentions.

But it wasn’t as if he’d be forcing himself on her. She wanted him, too. He knew she was struggling with it, same as he was.

And as a woman, I found myself nodding along with some of the thoughts and feelings expressed by the female characters in this story, particularly when reflecting on whether or not something was their fault.

She wanted Brad to admire her. She didn’t want to provoke a sleeping wolf, didn’t even know that a wolf was there.

One other thing this book touches on is the complicit silence that enables the perpetuation of these injustices. Whether it is good ole boys cronyism or the ease with which we allow the people in power to control the narrative, not questioning, not speaking up is the fear we need to overcome if we are to put a stop to further injustices. We need to hold people in power accountable for their actions and teach our children to own up to their mistakes and learn from them. What we need to do is simple, but that doesn’t mean easy, and sadly, that is why it has gone on as long as it has.

It was so much easier to demonize the black boy.

If I had to pick at anything, it would be a slightly more uplifting ending, but NOT how you would think. The story, which is both tragic and heart-breaking, could not have ended any other way and still been effective. I just wish that the epilogue would have been developed a bit more. After the in-depth character analysis we had been given throughout the rest of the story, I felt a bit robbed with the epilogue.

All in all, the book, at just under 300 pages, is a quick read, but a heavy and very compelling one. It’s perfect for fans of Celeste Ng and Little Fires Everywhere. There is a lot of discussion that could be made around this book, making it an excellent choice for a book club pick as well.

A Good Neighborhood comes out February 4, 2020 and is available now for pre-order at all your favorite booksellers.

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