BookBrowse Reviews A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler

Summary |  Excerpt |  Reading Guide |  Reviews |  Beyond the book |  Readalikes |  Genres & Themes |  Author Bio

A Good Neighborhood

by Therese Anne Fowler

A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler X
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

  • First Published:
    Feb 2020, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2021, 384 pages

    Genres

  • Rate this book


Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
Buy This Book

About this Book

Reviews

BookBrowse:


In Therese Anne Fowler's sixth novel, issues of race and privilege undermine a teen romance and lead to tragedy in a North Carolina neighborhood.

After fictionalized biographies of Zelda Fitzgerald (Z, 2013) and Alva Vanderbilt (A Well-Behaved Woman, 2018), Therese Anne Fowler has returned to the kind of contemporary setting that characterized her first three novels. A Good Neighborhood is an up-to-the-minute story packed with complex issues including celebrity culture, casual racism, sexual exploitation and environmental degradation. If you loved Tayari Jones's An American Marriage, this needs to be next on your to-read list.

North Carolina's Oak Knoll community is home to people of a variety of ages, races and backgrounds. It appears to be an idyllic neighborhood: Everyone knows everyone else, and the women get together once a month for book club at Valerie Alston-Holt's house. Valerie, an African American ecology professor, is a single mother to 18-year-old Xavier. Her husband Tom, a white sociology professor, died when Xavier was a baby. With the help of a partial scholarship, Xavier will be off to San Francisco in the fall to study classical guitar.

Even before they moved in, Valerie was predisposed to dislike her new neighbors, the Whitmans. They had the woods behind her property clear-cut to build an ostentatious house and swimming pool. Brad Whitman, an HVAC entrepreneur, has become a minor celebrity through his TV commercials, and it seems like he's showing off the $2 million he earned from the gadget he invented. Though turned off by this nouveau riche display and irked by Brad's initial assumption that the mixed-race Xavier was a lawn maintenance worker, Valerie is more distressed by the Whitmans' disregard for the local ecosystem. All told, she's far from thrilled when Xavier starts to show interest in Brad's stepdaughter, 17-year-old Juniper.

The families' dealings soon become even more problematic, and it all starts with a tree. Valerie notices that the venerable oak on her property—so old that a freed slave is buried under it—is dying. She's sure that digging the foundations for the Whitmans' house and pool disturbed the tree's root system. An environmental lawyer (see Beyond the Book) takes on her case and sues for the safe removal of the tree, the restoration of the landscape and emotional damages: $400,000 from the builder plus a cool $100,000 from the Whitmans.

It's just a tree, right? There may be hard feelings over the lawsuit, but surely all will quiet down and go back to normal? And what harm could Xavier and Juniper's Romeo and Juliet-style sneaking around do? The novel's unhurried willingness to delve into backstories might lull readers into a sense of safety, but there's no mistaking the foreshadowing. The first page mentions a funeral, and early on this story is branded a "slow tragedy."

In fact, the novel is narrated in a first-person plural voice, much like the Greek chorus of a classical tragedy. The neighborhood as a whole ("We, with our collective wisdom but imperfect knowledge") reflects on how things went from bad to worse within a few months. This narrative choice is highly effective because the neighbors, like readers, only gradually piece together what happens over this tumultuous summer. Gossip becomes theory becomes fact. There are also clear factions within the book's "us" that take different sides in the conflict, which creates a sense of varying viewpoints—an acknowledgment that, even when presented with the same scenario, we all interpret things differently.

Fowler is careful to give each character, even the potentially repugnant ones, a history that helps to account for the decisions they make. For instance, Brad's wife, Julia, grew up in a trailer and helped her mother on cleaning jobs. One of their employers molested Julia when she was a girl. The poverty of her upbringing explains why she's clung to Brad for financial security, while her experience of sexual abuse led her to push Juniper into making a purity pledge as a young teenager. This question of purity—both sexual and racial—becomes a central one, joining consent and privilege as a major, timely theme.

A Good Neighborhood makes for a compelling, though ultimately sobering, read. A feeling of dread only intensifies as you approach its last few chapters. Fowler may not be subtle with her message, but everything that happens is realistic in the context of recent American history, and she's right to imply that the post-racial society we might like to think we live in is still mostly a myth. This is a book that will make you think, and a book that will make you angry. I recommend it to socially engaged readers and book clubs alike.

Reviewed by Rebecca Foster

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in February 2020, and has been updated for the March 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

This review is available to non-members for a limited time. For full access become a member today.
Membership Advantages
  • Reviews
  • "Beyond the Book" articles
  • Free books to read and review (US only)
  • Find books by time period, setting & theme
  • Read-alike suggestions by book and author
  • Book club discussions
  • and much more!
  • Just $12 for 3 months or $39 for a year.
  • More about membership!

Beyond the Book:
  Tree Law in the United States

Join BookBrowse

Become a Member and discover books that entertain, engage & enlighten.

Find out more


Today's Top Picks

  • Book Jacket: Razorblade Tears
    Razorblade Tears
    by S. A. Cosby
    Razorblade Tears, a thriller by S.A. Cosby, follows a pair of ex-convicts who team up to avenge the ...
  • Book Jacket: Once There Were Wolves
    Once There Were Wolves
    by Charlotte McConaghy
    In Charlotte McConaghy's second novel after her debut Migrations, environmental biologist Inti Flynn...
  • Book Jacket: The Secret Keeper of Jaipur
    The Secret Keeper of Jaipur
    by Alka Joshi
    Alka Joshi's The Secret Keeper of Jaipur is the sequel to her 2020 bestseller The Henna Artist and ...
  • Book Jacket: Seek You
    Seek You
    by Kristen Radtke
    In the first pages of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke's sophomore ...

Book Club Discussion
Book Jacket
In Every Mirror She's Black
by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom
An arresting debut for anyone looking for insight into what it means to be a Black woman in the world.

Readers Recommend

  • Book Jacket

    Never Saw Me Coming
    by Vera Kurian

    "Fun, entertaining and hard to put down."
    —The New York Journal of Books

  • Book Jacket

    The Last Chance Library
    by Freya Sampson

    Fans of libraries and heartfelt, humorous fiction won't want to miss this one!

Who Said...

At times, our own light goes out, and is rekindled by a spark from another person.

Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!

Wordplay

Solve this clue:

Pull Y U B T B

and be entered to win..

Books that     
entertain,
     engage

 & enlighten

Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.

Join Today!

Your guide toexceptional          books

BookBrowse seeks out and recommends the best in contemporary fiction and nonfiction—books that not only engage and entertain but also deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.