Published March 2020 by St. Martin's Publishing Group
Source: my copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review
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, who’s headed to college in the fall. All is well until the Whitmans—an apparently traditional family with new money and a secretly troubled teenaged daughter—raze the house and trees next door to build themselves a showplace.
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.
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 love in a story that’s as provocative as it is powerful.
This is my third book by Fowler. I was not a big fan of the first book I read by her, Exposure (written under Therese Fowler) but enjoyed her last book, A Well-Behaved Woman so I didn't hesitate to give this one a try. Interestingly, this one has a lot of parallels to Exposure, with two young people falling in love over the objections of her father, objections that lead to terrible consequences.
We recently drove through older neighborhoods looking at Christmas lights. In some of these neighborhoods the location makes the property valuable enough that people will buy homes only to raze them and build new, bigger, more modern houses on the lots. I've often wondered what the people who have lived in those neighborhoods think of the new people who were too good to live in a home like the ones they have lived in for years, who build homes that don't blend into the neighborhood. So when I was looking for my final book of 2019, this one seemed like just the book for the moment.
"An upscale new house in a simple old neighborhood. A girl on a chaise beside a swimming pool, who wants to be left alone. We begin our story here, in the minutes before the small event that will change everything. A Sunday afternoon in May when our neighborhood is still maintaining its tenuous peace, a loose balance between old and new, us and them. Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who's to blame."Not an insignificant part of the reason I liked this book was because Fowler has chose to have the story narrated by the neighborhood; not an individual but the collective neighborhood. It was a unique perspective that allowed the narrator to see everything happening but also be intimately involved. Fowler also seamlessly works in the history of her main characters, which is key to understanding why they act the way they do, particularly when things start to fall apart.
You know how I feel about novels where there author has tried to work in too many themes; they so often feel forced and unable to really explore every theme. In A Good Neighbor, Fowler has tackled race, religion, class, parenting, and how we live together. And it all works; nothing feels gratuitous.
For the most part, the characters are all fully developed and believable. The only exception, and it's really my only quibble with the book, is Brad Whitman. He practically rides in wearing a black hat that screams bad guy and, while Fowler gives him a background that might be meant to make us understand why he is the way he is, he never feels like anything more than "the bad guy." Which he absolutely is.
You think you know where the tension is going to come from in this book and then Fowler takes it in a new direction and really ramps things up. And then those last twenty pages just grabbed me. I'm pretty sure this one is going to bump something on my book club's list of books for the year. Maybe just so I can have them read the book club parts of the book, especially where Fowler calls the chatty part of the book club meetings as the "graze and gab" part. I loved that!