The Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
Published on: March 10, 2020 by St. Martins Press
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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.
Review: I have been looking forward to this book for months. The synopsis made me expect a thriller and a tragedy all wrapped up into one. I could not have been more disappointed. Not just disappointed but angry too. I was supposed to write this review on Saturday but it just turned into a non-coherent rant with language that would make a sailor blush. So I decided to give it a few days before I tried again.
Be aware, from here on out there will be all variety of spoilers. Mainly because I am hoping that after reading all of it, you won’t have the desire to read this piece of propaganda, masquerading as a novel.
This book was an agenda. The author has political views that she feels are very important. So she constructed a story around those political views in order to make her reader feel guilty about how they felt about the book. I despise it when an author feels they need to manipulate me into thinking their worldview is so superior to any other.
First off, for an author who gives such a long winded explanation in the Acknowledgements about how she researched African American culture in order to represent them properly in her book, she did a piss poor job. There are a total of two black characters, and the mother gets very snippy if you refer to them as African American because she’s Haitian American. But apart from the author telling me their race every ten pages or so there is absolutely nothing about them that gives me any indication they are other than white. Xavier has no personality whatsoever except for us to be told how smart he is, how asexual he is, how generous and kind he is. Frankly, she tried to make him a saint. And in doing so made him barely better than a cardboard cutout. She even has the character tell us how his friends thing he should act more like he’s from the “hood”. It was insulting.
Speaking of his mother, she is an awful human being. I could tell right from the start that I wouldn’t like her. I got the feeling that the author wrote herself into this character and then changed her skin tone. I could also tell that the author was setting her up to be as “perfect” as her perfect son, and that if I disagreed with her being perfect then I was a racist. I knew that’s where this was going, and in the end, it did go that way. But she isn’t perfect. She’s a horrible, racist, sexist bigot. She decides to sue her neighbor because in the process of building his home he inadvertently killed her tree. The tree had some deeper history and some story about the slaves who used to live on the property and such, fair enough. But then she goes to see her attorney and laments that she would have preferred to hire a person of color but the white guy has better environmental credentials. And then she speculates that he’s gay and it must be nice to be able to pass as straight, she can’t pass for something beneficial as a Haitian American, people just think she’s African American and that’s not beneficial at all. She approaches every white person in the book (which is apparently the rest of the neighborhood) with an air of “you’re looking down at me because I’m not white aren’t you?”. It doesn’t matter what the person does or says, she feels the same way. Later her son asks her if she’s suing both the husband and wife and she replies no, just the husband, she assumes that he is the one who made all the decisions. In the same conversation she berates her son for dating the white neighbor girl because she’s just “so very white” and that purity vow thing she did was bizarre.
But remember, you are told very clearly on every single page that she is the good guy. The fighter for justice! All the white people are horrible and just trying to ruin the lives of anyone non-white. Every single white person in this book was a pedophile, rapist, child abuser, sexual harasser, racist good ‘ole Southern boy. Literally every single one. And yet I found her just as offensive.
Also, pretty far fetched that anyone in North Carolina would be berating a teenage girl for a purity vow. Something like 80% of North Carolina residents are devoutly Christian. So that made absolutely no sense at all except to tell me that author thinks it’s weird and so it was weird to everyone else in the book too
So, then we come to the plot. Nothing actually happens until 75% of the way through. It involves Brad trying to set up Xavier for doing something awful, because then he can stop this nonsense of his step-daughter dating him and we all know everyone wants to pin it on the “black boy next door” right? Hell, even Xavier’s own attorney (who is an African American man) tells him that he’s just too non-white for it to matter that he’s basically a saint, he better plead guilty or he’s going to prison.
Brad is setting Xavier up for rape. Because his precious step-daughter (who he has disgusting sexual fantasies about) decided to have sex with her boyfriend. Brad calls the police and says, “OMG, this kid raped her!” And somehow everyone just goes along with it. Juniper tells everyone from the police, to the doctor, to the nurse, to the district attorney that she wasn’t raped. Every single one of them just pats her hand and says, “There, there dear, lots of rape victims don’t think they were raped.” Their basis for why it was rape is that he had a knife (for cutting up food since they were in the woods) and he brought alcohol (which they both drank). Now, as thousands of women can tell you, this is the exact opposite of any experience they ever had with reporting a rape to the authorities. But of course, Valerie has the answer for that too, it’s because her son is black…they want him to be guilty so they are all willing to set him up. I don’t buy it, not for a second. Many women can tell you that the average experience of reporting rape by a complete stranger is to be met with skepticism and even more so when it’s a romantic partner. “Come on honey, are you sure this isn’t about you being mad at him? Maybe he cheated and you’re upset.” The only circumstance in which rape accusations seem to favor the woman making the accusation is on college campuses. There you have insane laws, like in California, that if a woman has been drinking then it’s automatically rape, regardless of whether the male has been drinking or not. Men of every color are routinely run out of college campuses, with no criminal proceedings but their entire futures ruined over an allegation with zero evidence. But in the world of criminal prosecution the exact opposite is true. Yet, I’m supposed to believe that a “victim” can sit here and repeatedly tell everyone on the earth that she isn’t a victim and everyone just says “hush now dear, he’s black, of course it was rape.” Please. It was cheap and disgusting.
This book made me want to vomit. It was the single most racist piece of fiction I’ve ever read. The entire book was a lecture about how white people need to stop trying to intentionally ruin the lives of minorities. I can honestly say I will never pick up a book by this author ever again. I don’t need to be lectured when I read.