Alright, this is going to get real long and personal. I have a lot of feelings about this book. A lot of them. This is also one of those reviews that I was hesitant to post. But I’m doing it anyway.
Customary warning: This is a reminder that these are my personal opinions. My thoughts and feelings are not your thoughts and feelings. I may not always be the target audience for a book; sometimes I am. If I do not like a book, that doesn’t mean you’ll dislike it. If I love a book or simply like a book, you may hate it. Take everything I say with this knowledge. If it sounds interesting to you despite what I’ve said, then go ahead and read it. You’ll only know you like something if you read it yourself.
That being said… Spoilers ahead.
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
Synopsis From The Book
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, who’s headed to college in the fall. All is well until the Whitmans―a family with new money and a secretly troubled teenage daughter―raze the house and trees next door to build themselves a showplace.
With little in common except a property line, these two 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.
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 love in a story that’s as provocative as it is powerful.
Contemporary | A – PW | Implied Sex, Allegations of Rape, Suicide, Racism, Sexual Assault | Race in America, Voicelessness, To be Good, Identity and Self Worth
Initial Thoughts Before Reading:
This book was supposed to be our April book club book, but that did not end up happening. Or rather, it will not end up happening, because of the virus. As such, I am still going to read it, and post it, but there will be no book club section.
Let’s go on in.
EDIT: Before I actually got into the book I was smacked with TWO Forwards. The first is a letter. The Second is the acknowledgements. Often times the acknowledgements are at the end of the book, and what’s interesting to me about this is that the author wants to put forward immediately that she understands a few things and that we as a reader must know them too. One. She is white, and she is not presuming to be black or to be the only voice for these people, that she did her research and got advice, but that she is white. Second, she understands that “I don’t see color” is a statement that can’t be true and that people do see color as well as many other things. She grew up in an integrated school and neighborhood but she understands racism still exists and is very prevalent, and that she will not shy away from this. I think this is particularly striking towards me, because I do not see nearly the same outrage towards this book as American Dirt got. This could be because of the book deal not being the same. It could also be because of how she represents her characters, I am not sure (but I am sure I can speak to the stereotypes and the likes a lot better for this one as a half black half white person myself). I’ve see a lot of good things about this book. So. I suppose its time to dive headfirst.
Initial Thoughts After Reading:
I’m going to let you know right now, as I stop reading at page 19. I skimmed the ending of this book to learn who died. This is to say I knew someone died. The first paragraph of the book speaks on a funeral. This is also to say that I had to know by page 19 if I was going to continue this book for the same of my own health or not. I have never stopped a book because of the content. Ever. I just don’t. I like to read through it to better work my empathy. But I hard core empathized with the character who died 19 pages into this story. That character IS me. From the way this character was interested in passions, to how they liked books. When one of my favorite book series was mentioned point blank in the book and how this character spent a summer reading all 22 books (which I just read all 22 books again last year), I had to do a hard stop and I had to know. I had to know right then and there if I this person died, and if they did, could I go on? Because by knowing if they died, I could stop myself from falling fully into the character. I could possibly stop myself from heart ache. And because I skimmed I was only able to get a minor understanding, but I’m almost certain this character kills themselves and I just… I didn’t know if I, someone who heavily identified with this character, would be able to do that.
But I did. I did keep going and what happens to me from this point on is my fault and my fault alone. Because I could have stopped and probably should have stopped. But I know myself and I know that if I don’t read, after I’ve started, it will eat me alive. So I did. When I come back, please understand that I may be distraught.
Edit at pg 30: I read the end again, more thoroughly this time. To remind myself. I need to desensitize myself to this.
Pg 77 had to stop again. Pg 98 I realized I started skimming somewhere between 77 and 98, which means I have to probably reread.
Okay, so I finished. I cried with my mom. She’s probably not going to read the novel after I told her what happened because I know her. I know how she’d react and I know that she’d not be okay for days. I don’t know if I’m going to be okay.
This story will end in death by the end of summer.
The Whitmans have just moved in behind the Alston-Holts. The Whitmans, Brad (stepfather), Julia, Junpier, and Lily are the perfect Christian white family. The Alston-Holts, Valerie and Xavier, are a black woman and her mixed raced son living in a community with older people. Xavier’s father died when he was young. When the new neighbors first move in , Valerie is immediately apprehensive towards them, however in time she begins to warm up to Julia. Julia, once a single mother of Junpier before Brad, is obsessed with appearances and will do anything to appease Brad even if she thinks some of his beliefs are outdated (like how a woman’s place is in the home). Juniper and Xavier start to get crushes on each other. Juniper is into ecology, botany and zoology. Xavier got into a conservatory for music, classical guitar. They kiss once at a party. There is a clear disparity in how Brad views Xavier and Valerie, mistaking Xavier for a yard boy upon first meeting, telling Juniper that she can’t be around him etc.
When Valerie realizes her oak is losing leaves she realizes that the house company that made the pool and yard for the Whitmans didn’t follow HOA guidelines, and the likes, and her trees are dying because of it. She files a lawsuit and tells Xavier about it. We learn how Julia was a single mother working to protect herself and her daughter. We learn that the past winter, Brad kissed Juniper when she was sleeping and that he is attracted to her. Juniper gets a car and starts working. Juniper and Xavier flirt more and kiss again, after Xavier apologized to her knowing about her purity promise and everything. They want to date but know they can not.
We learn of what happened to Tom, Valerie’s husband. He got in a fight with a family member about Valerie, and hit his head. At first no one thought anything of it, but he died from the bleeding in his brain.
Brad is convinced Juniper likes him too, but after almost being struck by lightning, he realizes he should not act on his (what he thinks is their) desires. Or perhaps once, just to get it out of his (he says their) systems.
Juniper and Xavier talk on a dream future, of running a nacho food truck and running a business along the coast. They are in love, some sort of love even if that is not clear. The two grow closer. Valerie knows they are seeing each other. Juniper starts to question everything about purity and she comes to the conclusion that even if Xavier isn’t the one she won’t be ruined by having sex. She and Xavier got to a cabin and have sex. Brad finds them, by tracing Juniper’s phone to her car. Brad walks in on them and attacks Brad, he takes Juniper home and insists she was raped. He files charges against Xavier.
It all goes down hill from here. Xavier loses his job, his scholarship, has to go to trial and could face up to twenty-five years in prison. Not once did Juniper say he raped her. She is dazed, confused, and scared of BRAD. She thinks Xavier will get out of it alright. Then Xavier gets out on bail and a man attacks him, and Xavier loses his playing hand. He’ll never play guitar professionally again. Brad still thinks that he saved Juniper and still plans on seducing her and everyone thinks that Xavier actually did rape Juniper (or a lot of people do, specifically white people.) Valerie gets a call that if she drops the lawsuit, Brad will drop the rape charges. Valerie agrees but the DA won’t drop them and Xavier still has to go to trial.
Juniper is angry Xavier won’t contact her. She’s away with her mother, and grandparents. She finds out what is happening to Xavier by escaping the house and finding somewhere to go on the internet. She calls the DA and the DA doesn’t believe her. She is the chief witness and the “victim” and they don’t believe her when she says Xavier didn’t rape her and that it was consensual.
What I Liked:
Juniper; I actually did like her. I believe in her and who she is. And worse yet I feel the horrible for her. Because she never said Xavier raped her. She claimed it consensual. She found out that they still were trying to control her, that her whole family was being racist, and that the DA didn’t believe her. She’s the supposed victim and no one believed her when she said it didn’t happen. Because it didn’t happen. She was scared of BRAD, her step father. When he kissed her, without her consent, she didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know who to tell or want to destroy her family. When he saw her with Xavier, she freaked out about Brad. Brad. It was always Brad, and no one believed her and a part of that will live with her forever. She was destroyed by this as much as anyone, and she did everything she could do to stop it. She just wasn’t believed.
Xavier; San Fran Conservatory for Music. “Music was his love.” pg 9. He read Redwall and loved Redwall. I freaking love that series. I just crashed hard the moment I read who he was. He was me and my brothers all at once. He was me. Is me. Is my brothers. And, he was taken from the world because of greed and disgusting men and racism. So much racism where it is easier to pin it on a black boy than it is to search for the truth. He has a speech in the book, or rather the narrator goes into it, that he is black. 100% even if half white. This, is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life, always. And this also hit me hard.
Julia; She was a very well rounded and developed character. We got to know so much about her, the good and the bad. Poor woman just was trying her best for herself and her daughters.
Valerie; I can’t even imagine her pain of losing a husband and son to racism. I can’t. I really respect and admire her but I just can’t fathom it. She was a deep and complex character. She was also a big lover of trees (both for their literal meaning and deeper meaning to her).
Claimed Diversity and Inclusion without doing anything; pg 15, THIS GOT ME. There is a part in the book where the book speaks on the perceived diversity that people feel when they do nothing at all. Those who see their neighborhood and see the one diverse couple and are like, see we are good. No. You can’t claim that you are stopping a system or that a system doesn’t exist just because you have a black friend.
We; It took me a while to understand who the We was. When I realized it was the neighborhood, those bystanders that watched this break down, I wanted to scream. They were the reason what happened happened. “And for the record: we never wanted to take sides.” BUT YOU DID. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu. The We picked sides at the very beginning and this entire book is about this. When I realized that the We was the neighbors I understood that the We were us as the readers and the watchers and the viewers at home who sit by and do nothing as this continues to happen. This book is not about who was right and who was wrong between Valerie and Brad. Brad was a bad man. He was a bad, corrupt, and horrible man. Xavier was good. And yet, Brad survives and will probably be fine despite everything and Xavier died. And yet, people still want “more” from Xavier as if he can’t just be a good kid as if there has to be something that was wrong with him, to justify what happened to him or something. No. Xavier was the victim 100% and We have to stop looking for reasons to justify why its okay for this to happen. Because it’s not. This book was not specifically a commentary on racism, or pedophilia, or sexual assault, or believing women. No. This book was a commentary on society and how society looks for justification and sides with the oppressor, even if they “never wanted to take sides.”
Race; I wasn’t sure how I was going to speak about this, because the book does touch on it a lot and I think I’m going to do this as an afterward because there is something I want to break down for this.
Brad; He’s a horrible villain but a villain nonetheless. Did I like him? No. Did I think his character was done reasonably well? Yes.
Writing style and writing; It’s very well written, even with the long paragraph on trees, which is symbolism for Xavier and racism.
What I Would Have Liked or Changed:
Xavier not to die; I understand his desperation. I understand and empathize with it in total but I wish that he didn’t and somehow justice was served for him. That somehow he got his life back. Sadly that’s not the case for many black boys in America, so it is wishful thinking.
Rating and Afterward: 4.5/5
So I went to the reviews. When reading this novel, not once did I think that Valerie or Xavier were mischaracterized or that what happened to Xavier was in any way contrived. It’s not. It happens all the time. So I went to the reviews. I wasn’t sure if I was too empathetic with Xavier to accurately look at this book from a critical lens. On GR I went through the 2 and 1 star reviews. Did I read them all? No. But I found common ground. While there were many who rated it one star because of how it made them feel (they were so disgusted that it could be true), most people said the characters were too one dimensional, and that Xavier was too good. Which to me is BS. Xavier was not too good. The other thing is, this is told from a 3rd person perspective of the neighbors, they see what they want to see. So when they see Brad as horrible, they truly believe it and when they see Xavier as good, they believe it too.
We is an unreliable narrator. A limited unreliable narrator.
However. Xavier can still be that good. Why is it that a black kid can’t be good in music, have a 4.2 GPA, get into college on scholarship, and have been raised by a single mom? I can name MULTIPLE black people in my family alone who fit the bill for so many of these. My brothers and myself included. I can name FRIENDS who fit this bill, so many of them. Are we freaking enigmas? And I get the whole, tokenizing, they must be absolutely perfect, argument here. The issue is I didn’t see him as that token perfect character. I don’t think the characters were as flat as these reviewers made them out to be either, so I might just disagree with them fundamentally. Some people claimed Valerie and Xavier mary-sues (tokens) with nothing that made them complex. But like… Valerie had trust issues, and communication issues. She had her own preconceived notions and acted rashly because of them. Xavier was smart, yeah, but he had trouble making lasting friendships, and connecting with people in a way. He was also stupid with people, because he knew better than to go after Juniper and he did anyway because he was idealistic and dreamed of a perfect world. I know what that’s like. He’s me, especially with that idealization.
I thought the characters were flat on the surface and deeply complex under that. Valerie: tree loving, single mother, who is black vs Valerie: single mother because of the loss of her husband in a deeply personal way (he died after defending her), untrusting of strangers and those around her, deeply understanding of her race and the preconceived notions of it, nature loving because of the historical context, necessity for life, and relation to what it means to her about her family. The we saw them as initially flat but as you read more and read deeper you can see more, because they were more. They’re people and people are richly complex even if you don’t see that on the surface. Even Brad was complex, despite being flatly horrible on the surface.
Was Xavier martyred? In a way. In another way I saw a traumatized boy who had lost everything take his own life, which if it had happened to me, I would have done the same, or contemplated the same. Because losing your reputation? Horrible. The possibility of your freedom? Horrifying. Your future? Horrible. But your soul? When his hand shattered and he lost the ability to play guitar I knew that was it. That was the moment. There was nothing he loved more than music, playing music. It was his soul and it was taken from him. He had nothing else.
I saw so many comments that were angry about the race. That it was so heavy handed. And that they couldn’t get into. I saw exactly one comment, and mind you I didn’t read all of the 2 stars, that spoke about how it read as black tragedy porn where the author consistently talked about Valerie’s blackness. In some ways I could see this, in others I think of myself and my friends and my family, where our blackness is a consistent, always. Always.
I then wanted to know if other black people thought this way, and for the few POC reader 2 stars and 1 stars that I found and read, a lot of it was because that they didn’t like the writing style or that they couldn’t get through because it hit too close to home. And I was just. Well that’s great, maybe I should look at the 3 stars, but I didn’t. I didn’t bother because I had my answer. Many reviews called this liberal BS, undirectioned because it talked on pedophilia and other issues (which I thought more or less not the focus of the book, but that it was a part of who Brad was and so it had to be addressed.) To me, this was a book about race, yes, race in America, and what good people can do to each other. However above race, it was about the bystander. What this book was really speaking on what bystanders, above everything else. Even if the characters were extremely flat, I would have forgiven it because this book was about us, it was not about them. Its about what we do, and how we act in the face of these sorts of stories. That’s why it was a We story.
Did I love this book? No. Its pretty horrible and I’ll probably be crying for days. Is it revolutionary and a way to talk about race for years to come? Probably not. I think this book is very similar to how I feel about Good Kids. It’s a play about sexual assault and rape. I worked on it in College, and my best friend’s school did it in his College. I kinda hated that play but it was a great talking ground to spring from. I kinda hate this book, but that doesn’t mean what happened doesn’t happen daily to boys across America, and I think its a place to start a conversation from. I will not recommend this to everyone, but it is not a bad book.
Ms. Fowler does not claim to be black and does not try to be. She did her research and tried, in my opinion. Yes it is miserable and I am hurt by it, but I think that’s because I cared less that she intentionally set out to write tragedy porn. Additionally, I really liked the we. This book is told in the perspective of the neighbors because yes this book is about racism, but it is about the passive witnesses to racism. This means that the characters are flat on the surface but deeply complex below, because its how people view them. We, as individuals, view other people in very one dimensional ways. This book is a commentary on the neutrality of bystanders and how that is not okay. The fact that the neighborhood still tries to see both sides, and how they did pick a side. You aren’t supposed to empathize with Brad. You aren’t supposed to hate Xavier. His death is not a tragedy, its horrible, but not a tragedy. In order to be a tragedy, the tragic character must have a fatal flaw. If Xavier’s story is a tragedy, then his fatal flaw was being black. Being black is not a fatal flaw, but trusting the wrong people is. And he didn’t trust the wrong people, he did most everything right. The wrong people just wanted to destroy him anyway and they knew it would be easy.
I could still be in a daze of too much empathy and forgiving this book for more than it’s worth, but it hit me and hit me hard.
“The story was good, and she’d become skillful at escaping into stories.” – pg 4
“Why doesn’t half white equal white the same way that half black equals black.” – pg 28
“Start here, please, in communion with one another despite our differences, recognizing that without start there is no end.” – pg 308