A Modern-Day Greek Tragedy
Updated: Aug 1, 2020
A Good Neighborhood
By: Therese Anne Fowler
Week three of the Covid-Lockdown has been challenging. E-learning has lost its allure; the novelty of it has officially worn off. I find myself using every possible bribe imaginable to get my kids to do all their work. For the moment, what seems to be working is a candy bribe. I’m sure the dentist will be thrilled with this when we eventually see her again, but honestly, who knows when we will ever go to the dentist again. It’s all about survival at this point.
I keep saying to myself that I just have to take this one-day-at-a-time. I can’t think about next week or even, next month. I just have to get through today. In the meantime, I appreciate any humor I can get. Lately, it’s been Jill Kargman’s “Dzanielle” vlog on Instagram. It brings a smile to my face every day. But really, like all the other times of uncertainty and unease, reading is my escape.
I wanted to read this week’s selection because I loved Therese Anne Fowler’s previous books. For those of you who haven’t read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – I highly recommend it. In Z, Fowler creates a wonderful historical fiction novel about the reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald. I also loved her most recent novel A Well Behaved Woman which is the story of Alva Vanderbilt and the Gilded Age.
A Good Neighborhood is different than Fowler’s other books because it is not a work of historical fiction. This is a fictionalized account of two families who live next door to each other and the relationships they form. This is a story of class, race, and forbidden love.
The two families are the Whitman’s and Aston-Holts, and there is nothing in this story that is even close to resembling Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. The novel takes place in Oak Knoll which is “a desirable neighborhood in the middle of a desirable North Carolina city”. Oak Knoll is not affluent but the people who live there are educated and have very well kept but modest homes. Valerie Ashton-Holt and her 18-year-old son Xavier have lived in this neighborhood since Valerie and her now-deceased husband Tom bought the house when they were newlyweds. Their house needs some work, but it’s home. Valerie is an avid gardener and an ecology professor at the local college. Her plantings and her trees are very important to her. The reason why she and her husband Tom bought the house 18 years before was because they loved the huge oak tree in the back yard. Valerie is also a woman who has faced adversity based on her race. She is a black woman who had been married to a white man and has a bi-racial child.
Their new neighbors are the Whitman’s. Brad Whitman is white and a successful owner of a prosperous HVAC company that he built from the ground up. Brad is well-known in the community because of all the commercials he stars in for his company. These commercials portray Brad as the all-American guy with a wonderful success story. Brad is married to Julia and they have two children, Juniper and Lily.
What do we know about these two families? We know that the Whitman’s have built an enormous house that now backs up to Valerie’s. The neighbors in Oak Knoll don’t look kindly upon the Whitman’s at first, because their neighborhood is not flashy and the Whitman’s are the definition of flashy. We know that the Whitman’s construction could have disrupted the root system for the beloved tree in Valerie’s yard. We also know that Julia met Brad as a single mother when she was working as his administrative assistant. Brad is now a step-father to her 17-year-old daughter, Juniper and together they went on to have Lily. We know that Brad has always treated Juniper as his own and Julia feels very grateful to him for that. Because Julia had Juniper out of wedlock at a young age, she feels strongly that her girls need to have a moral compass that will guide them throughout their teen years. For this reason, the family is actively involved in their church and Juniper has gone through the “Purity Vows” which ensures that she will remain “pure” until her wedding day.
We know that Valerie is a widow, and has been for much of her son’s Xavier’s life. Xavier is an outstanding student and a talented musician. He will be attending college in San Francisco in the fall on a music scholarship. Xavier is a conscientious and an overall wonderful kid. Valerie is a neighborhood leader who knows everyone and runs the neighborhood book clubs at her home. She is welcoming and friendly but she can also be a bit of a snob. She does not look kindly upon new money, Mcmansions, and everything that goes with it. As you can imagine, she had already made up her mind about the Whitman’s before she even met them.
Based on everything you know so far, it seems like it would have worked out well for these two neighbors to coexist without much of a relationship. But this is where the story turns. Xavier and Juniper meet and find that they like each other a lot. Together they embark on a teenagers’ version of a secret and clandestine love affair. As you can imagine, this causes all kinds of trouble. For one, Xavier is bi-racial and Juniper is white. Also, Juniper has taken a Purity vow that her family and her church take very seriously. Finally, Brad and Julia are extremely overprotective of their daughter. They even have a tracking device put on her car so that they know where she is at all times.
The story is told from several of the neighbors on the outside looking in. The book seems to be written as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong when two families such as these get mixed up together. For the entire novel, you are just waiting for some kind of tragedy. This is what I didn’t like about this novel. The entire time I was reading this book, I kept waiting to see when misfortune would strike. I knew that someone had to have a deep dark secret and to me, the whole story seemed a little too predictable. Knowing this made it hard for me to finish the book. However, I really loved Fowler’s characters. I found that Juniper and Xavier are extremely likable people. You want them to work out their differences and you want good to come their way. It seems unfair that the mistakes of their parents should determine their destiny.
On the other hand, I appreciate Fowler’s examination of race and the role that it still plays in our society today, especially down south. It’s terribly unfortunate that racial issues still exist in today’s world and that is why the book is so relevant. This is a modern-day thought-provoking novel that is set up like a Greek tragedy.
Overall, I will tell you to read this book. It is a really good book club read because there is so much to discuss. If your book club is still meeting through Zoom, consider it for your next pick. And please let me know what you think of it in the comments section. Or even feel free to email me at email@example.com.
Thank you for reading! I wish you all another week of safety, peace, and clarity in these uncertain times.
A Good Neighborhood
By: Therese Anne Fowler
Publication Date: March 10, 2020
St. Martin's Press