A Good Neighborhood
by Therese Anne Fowler
Paperback- $14.99

In Oak Knoll, a verdant, tight-knit North Carolina neighborhood, professor of forestry and ecology Valerie Alston-Holt is raising her ...

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  "" by [email protected] (see profile) 04/02/20

  "It was good, but the plot was obvious" by thewanderingjew (see profile) 04/10/20

A Good Neighborhood, Therese Anne Fowler, author; Ella Turenne narrator
Valerie Alston-Holt, a widow, lives in a modest house in Oak Knolls, North Carolina. She is a woman of color who had been married to a white man and has a biracial son, Xavier. She is a professor of ecology, and forestry. Xavier is a very high achiever, an excellent student and musician. He is well thought of, until the day he isn’t. However, when we meet him, he is planning to go to the conservatory, after his high school graduation, to study music, with a partial scholarship.
The Whitman family moves in to the huge house next door to the modest home of the Alston-Holts, after months of construction, Valerie has been watching it go up with dismay as she believes certain things the Whitmans are doing are harmful to the environment. When Xavier is outside, taking care of the lawn, he spies Juniper and introduces himself. She is sitting by the pool at the big house. She lives there with her mom, Julia, her step-dad, Brad, and her younger sister, Lily. She is a junior in high school, one year behind Xavier, and they become friends. They keep the extent of their friendship pretty much under wraps, however. When Brad Whitman comes outside, and sees Xavier, for the first time, he mistakes him for a workman and offers him a job.
Brad, is very materialistic and as he achieves success he purchases things to show his wealth. Julia, his wife, was in a desperate situation when he met her, and he gave her a job. Then they married and he sees himself as her knight in shining armor. He is always considerate of her feelings. Brad is a very successful businessman and is highly regarded because of his television ads which depict him as sincere and genuine.
Xavier brings his mom, Valerie, over to meet the Whitmans. She and Julia get along and Valerie invites her to a book club. Although Valerie is very neighborly, it becomes obvious, fairly quickly, that she distrusts white people, expecting the worst from them, almost as much as the white people often distrust black people. The author depicts black people as the models of society that white people are always looking to take advantage of and do not give a fair shake. The police, of course, are not to be trusted, and when they are involved in the story, they are true to form, biased and cruel. There is a lot of virtue signaling going on in the Alston-Holt house, and Xavier is warned about how to behave in most situations so as not to call negative attention to himself. In the Whitman house, there is a lot of boasting and spending.
There is a tree in the yard, between the houses, that Valerie loves. When the Whitmans make improvements to their property, it begins to die and her expertise in the field of ecology is offended. She decides she must stand up for her principles on the environment, and she decides to sue Brad Whitman for an exorbitant amount for willfully contributing to the trees destruction by ignoring the proper channels in order to get a permit.
Brad immediately assumes an ulterior motive and reverts to the thought stream that she is doing what “her kind” does. Brad begins to think about ways to stop her, and he is willing to use any means necessary. Valerie insists that she is suing him for the sake of the environment, but then she also mentions that she is aware that the money she will get, if she wins, will help Xavier through his four years of university. Was there an ulterior motive? Both Brad and Valerie are behaving poorly, although Valerie’s behavior is depicted as completely altruistic and not self serving at all. Her thoughts about how she will use the money if she wins the lawsuit, are played down completely.
As Juniper and Xavier grow closer, it becomes obvious that they care a great deal about each other and the honesty and innocence of their relationship is refreshing. When they decide to take their friendship further, and ignore the feud brewing between her step-dad and his mother, because of the lawsuit, the plot begins to gallop away. Brad catches Juniper and Xavier “in flagranti delicto”. Enraged, he uses the moment to punish Valerie for suing him and has Xavier arrested for rape, even though it was consensual. The reader is acutely aware of the injustice. Brad is not as nice as he seems. He plans to use this moment to force Valerie to drop her lawsuit. However, his plan goes awry and Xavier’s dreams of the future begin to crash around him from every direction.
Juniper is whisked away by her mother, is kept in the dark so she can “recover” from her experience. No one will listen to her side of the story, and she is unaware of the devastating effect their love has had on Xavier’s life. The story becomes more engaging and much closer to reality at this point. It highlights the clash between the white and black cultures in their way of thinking, their fears and their dreams. It highlights the racism and the stereotypical way the white and black community not only looks at each other, but also how their expectations of each other differ, but both views are negative. The differences between their lives are painted in stark reality.
The innocent beauty of the relationship between Juniper and Xavier is the highlight of the book. They are aware of their color differences, of their images in the real world, but also aware that they are living in a more enlightened world and seem older than the teenagers they are, at times, because at times, they seem like the only adults in the room. The adults seem crippled by their selfish needs. None of the characters is really as they are first depicted. There is an unknown side or version of themselves that develops.
The book is a tragedy, a tear jerker, because it highlights how unfair life can sometimes be because of racist attitudes which lead to jumping to conclusions based on those attitudes. Racism exists, however, in both directions, but the racism against people of color is far more stressed, and they are depicted as more G-d fearing even if they do not attend Church, while the Church-going white characters are far less ethical.
In the end, the story, for me, had less to do with race, and more to do with how we parent, view our ethics and values and practice them in reality. It is about opportunism and how it changed the course of the characters’ lives. It is about secrets and willful blindness about certain topics. While Brad is depicted as more of the opportunist, I felt that Valerie, in her hopes to win money to help Xavier, through her save the tree suit, was also an opportunist.
If we compare backgrounds, each character had struggles, regardless of color. Julia’s mother cleaned houses. Brad left University to start his business. Val left her community to raise her child in a decent place and married out of her own race. Brad was an opinionated man with some ugly opinions, but to the world, in his success, he presented himself as highly respectful. Julia was admired because of her wealth. Valerie was admired for her values. The book engages the reader with many social issues like religion, racism, rape, and parenting.
In conclusion, for a good part of this book, I was a bit put out. It felt contrived. I felt as if I was being treated as a naïve child, needing instruction about the realities of white and black life. The narrator contributed to this feeling because of her over emphasized, slow pronunciation of words and her childlike voice, as if she was explaining things to the reader that she believed were, or should be, obvious to the reader. It also felt kind of preachy, with an oversimplified presentation of the story. It seemed, at first, that it would be more appropriate to classify it as a YA novel. Since the main characters are teens, perhaps the choice of narrator and the type of presentation was intentional. Many of the characters seemed to be caricatures or stereotypes of their real life counterparts in law enforcement, in white and black neighborhoods, including the residents of those neighborhoods, and in school environments.

  "" by LoveOfBooks (see profile) 05/19/20

  "A Good Neighborhood" by LibraryLady75 (see profile) 07/07/20

Our club found this book very timely. With race relations at the forefront of our daily lives, this story proved to be a very interesting read.

  "" by [email protected] (see profile) 09/30/20

  "" by [email protected] (see profile) 02/03/21

So sad that racism is still prevalent today. This book will make you think.

  "" by [email protected] (see profile) 04/24/21

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