“A Good Neighborhood” Modernizes an Age Old Discussion on Identity


A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler (source: https://novelvisits.com/a-good-neighborhood-by-therese-anne-fowler-review/)

The New York Times and USA Today bestselling author, Therese Anne Fowler, published her newest novel, A Good Neighborhood, last year. In this thought-provoking story, Fowler’s realistic fiction novel expertly handles difficult topics such as rape, racism, sexism, incest, and the environment.

The novel centers around the conflicts that arise from the construction of the Whitmans’ home next door which destroys an old oak tree. Valerie Alston-Holt, professor in ecology and forestry, raises her biracial son, Xavier, in a racist and hostile, modern-day environment of the South. The beginning of the story details how the Whitmans, a wealthy family with a struggling teen, become their next-door neighbors. Toward the beginning of the book, the Whitmans finish building a house from scratch, which destroys many trees on their land. Tensions between the two families rise when their house affects an old, beloved oak tree. This conflict evolves further when the neighbors realize their teenagers have fallen in love.

Using the relationships in the novel, the author explores the gender hierarchy. In the Whitman family, the father continually puts his wife and daughters below him. For example, he has his daughter, Juniper, a quiet teenager, participate in a Purity Promise where she promises to remain a virgin until her marriage. Fowler debates whether this promise protects a woman from men who are potential future dangers, or if this is another attempt to objectify a woman. Personally, I liked how the author mixed this concept with a debate on what constitutes incest. Throughout the story, Brad Whitman makes many attempts at flirting with his Juniper, his stepdaughter. As the father, Brad holds more authority in their power dynamic relationship, pressuring Juniper to stay silent throughout the book. These two topics and discussions are not easy to facilitate, and I appreciate how the author never shies away from shedding light on society’s taboo subjects.

The author pulls in discussions of racism by talking about what black men experience in the criminal justice system. While the public may only see the exterior of the law process, she plunges into the mess our judicial system has become. Through contrasting characters’ perspectives, she discusses the uncertain fate of a African-American man in jail and the turmoil a black man’s friends and family may experience. I appreciate these discussions because it manifests how the author takes time in her life to think about what others go through and what she can do to make their lives better.

While reading this book, I noted the author’s brilliant use of literary techniques. The story is written in a tone that is formal, while still coming across as conversational. The characters in the book and their relationships are complex, with backstories that provided reasoning for their choices, further enriching the story. For example, Valerie Alston-Holt is a widowed wife of a white man, which influences her to caution her son against dating white people. Also, the two teens’ relationship was tested by a lawsuit and accusations of rape. Their relationship was also proven to be an act of love, rather than lust, which many people think is not possible for teenage romance.

Throughout the book, there were abrupt changes in perspective, which, at times, made the book difficult to read and understand. Using the pronoun “we,” the author referred to the neighbors to tell part of the story. Unfortunately, their perspective was uninformative and repetitive. It took away from the flow of the story, rather than adding more information or insight.

With an overall rating of 4 out of 5 stars, I would recommend this book to mature teenagers and Social Studies teachers. Relevant to today’s issues, many discussions can be launched from this book. The topics in the book act as a reminder that there is still much to do in our society to forge equality with our neighbors, both the ones who live next door and the ones in our community. Maybe this book won’t solve any of the problems women and BIPOC boys face, but it will provoke discussions that will build bridges between different, separated communities.