Excerpt from A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Good Neighborhood

by Therese Anne Fowler

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler X
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2020, 320 pages
    Mar 2021, 384 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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Print Excerpt

"No, just farther out in this town."

He smiled. "Cool. Well, I didn't mean to bother you. Just, you know, welcome."

"No bother. Thanks."

If this had been the extent of it, if they'd been able to greet each other and then leave it at that—well, everything would have been a lot simpler for everyone. To say the least.


North Carolina has a temperate climate. That's a big part of its draw. Winter is mild. Spring arrives early. Yes, summers are hot, but fall brings relief and lasts a long time. The oaks keep their leaves well into December, and sometimes, when winter is especially gentle, some of the varieties—the live oak being one, with its slim, feather-shaped, delicate-seeming leaves—stay leafed throughout winter as well.

The boy who greeted Juniper that first day, Xavier Alston-Holt, knew a lot about trees. They weren't a special interest of his; he was far more interested in music, and in particular, music made using acoustic guitars. Guitars, though, are made from wood, so when his mother talked to him in endless detail about various trees, their habitats, their residents, their qualities, their vulnerabilities (greedy homebuilders topping that list), he mostly paid attention. When his mother stood in their backyard taking video and crying the day the lot behind theirs was cleared, the day men with chainsaws and grinders started at dawn and continued until dusk and his ears rang for the rest of the night, he stayed there in the yard with his arm around her shoulders because that was what he could do for her. She'd done so much for him.

And so Xavier was not surprised, nor were any of us, that his mother was not eager to meet the new neighbors who'd bought the freshly built house behind theirs. Valerie Alston-Holt was not sure how to be friendly with the kind of people who would put up the money to tear down the old house and cut down the trees. All of the trees. "People like that," she'd said more than once—for this kind of thing was happening throughout Oak Knoll now in varying degrees—"people like that have no conscience. It's like they're raping the landscape. Murdering it. Trees are life. Not just my life," she would add, since her fields were forestry and ecology, "but life, period. They literally make oxygen. We need to keep at least seven trees for every human on the planet, or else people are going to start suffocating. Think of that."

Xavier walked around to the wooded front yard where his mother was clipping peonies for display on a sick neighbor's bedside table. The plant beds around their modest brick ranch, a house that had been built in 1952 and had hardly been updated since, were Valerie's favorite things, second only to her son, and one tree, the massive old eighty-foot oak that dominated their backyard. You might not think a tree could mean so much to a person. This tree, though, was more than a magnificent piece of arboreal history; for Valerie Alston-Holt, it was a witness and companion. Its wide trunk was the first thing she noticed each time she looked out the windows into the backyard. It recalled to her many moments from the years they'd lived here, not the least of which was the summer night she had stood and pressed her forehead against its nubby gray-brown bark and cried while Xavier slept in his crib, the boy too young to know that God had just robbed them blind.

Six varieties of irises. Peonies in four different colors. Azalea, phlox, snowdrop, camellia, rhododendron, clematis, honeysuckle, jasmine—you name the plant, if it grew in this state, Valerie Holt had installed it somewhere on their plot. Tending her plants was her therapy, she liked to say, her way of shutting out the stresses that came with teaching undergraduates at the university—or more often, the stresses that came from dealing with the department head or the dean. The kids were actually pretty great. Curious. Smart. Political in ways she approved of—useful ways, ways that helped protect natural habitats, or tried to, anyway, and that was worth a lot. Young people were going to save the world from itself, and she was going to encourage them in every way she could.

Excerpted from A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler. Copyright © 2020 by Therese Anne Fowler. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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