I read “A Good Neighborhood” by Therese Anne Fowler over the weekend. I am a big fan of Fowler’s “Z” about Zelda Fitzgerald and enjoyed “A Well Behaved Woman” about Ava Vanderbilt and her place in one of America’s wealthiest families. This book is a departure from not only the historical fiction genre she typically writes in, but the traditional story telling techniques we’ve seen in her previous books.
Told with an omnipotent and anonymous narrator that appears to represent “the neighborhood,” we are introduced to Oak Knoll, a middle class, mixed race neighborhood in a generic, central North Carolina city. The Whitmans, and their new money, have torn down an existing home, clear-cut the lot, and built their dream McMansion. Abutting their yard to the back is Valerie Alston-Holt and her biracial son Xavier, a passionate young classical guitarist with dreams and a single-focused dedication to achieve them. Until he meets young Juniper Whitman, a 17 year old girl who has endured bullying at her own school as a result of the purity pledge she took with her step-father, Brad, at their church.
Valerie, a dedicated gardener and professor bent on saving the environment, is outraged when the repercussions of the builder’s tree razing and lot usage have damaged her beloved water oak tree. She sues intent on teaching entitled Brad Whitman and his corporate builder a lesson, which enrages Brad. Meanwhile, Xavier and Juniper have started seeing each in secret.
Without giving anything away, this star-crossed lovers story is so much more than denied teenaged love. It is a story tackling race, gentrification, class, entitlement, and women’s agency. While tragic (seriously, please have tissues handy), the story is beautifully told. These characters are rich on the page and multi-faceted. The neighborhood, as a character, harkens back to the traditional Greek chorus and while they warn the reader tragedy is ahead, I kept reading full of hope that these characters would find a way out.
This book was a tour de force for me. I sat in silence for quite some time after finishing reflecting on many things this book addresses, not the least of which was the brilliant writing for me. Be sure to also spend time with Fowler’s acknowledgements and her honest admission to her own limitations and responsibility in writing characters of color — there are ways to handle writing outside our own cultures, but it must be handled appropriately. As another white woman, I am not an appropriate judge as to whether she succeeds, but I did feel she handled these characters with the utmost respect and care.
I would give this book five out of five stars.