This is one of those books that grabs hold of the reader right from the start and doesn’t let go. From the start, everything slowly revealed about these characters expertly drew me in and made me want to know more.
The titular ‘good neighborhood’ is Oak Knoll, an aging, suburban area full of close-knit neighbors and gorgeous old trees. Valerie Alston-Holt is a widowed, middle-aged Black professor of forestry and ecology. Her main passions have been raising her smart, soon-to-graduate biracial son, Xavier, and doing what she can to protect nature and the environment. Xavier has a bright future ahead of him and all is well until the neighborhood begins to change as homes of aging neighbors are bought up, torn down, and replaced with McMansions by ‘new money’ people. Enter local celebrity Brad Whitman, whose HVAC business is popular and prosperous. Brad moves his family next door to the Alston-Holts, after first clearing the lot of all of its old trees to build his new home. While Brad’s family appears traditional and happy from the outside, things are not as they seem and his stepdaughter, Juniper, is troubled. The two families are very quickly at odds, and a blossoming romance between Xavier and Juniper does nothing to help that.
Fowler’s writing is truly excellent: descriptive while being very to the point, and her use of apparently multiple 3rd person narratives from the perspective of some unnamed neighbors was brilliant and effective. The timing is great, and the story moves along such that I had no time to be bored.
The story itself tackles a whole lot of hot-button issues: racism, profiling, sexual abuse, white privilege, power structures caused by economic differences, Christian conservatism, and ecological conservation. While it’s not an in-depth study of any of these issues, the author does manage to keep all of the balls in the air and bring everything together nicely. The end result is a heart breaking and powerful cautionary tale.
If you’re looking for an uplifting novel, this is probably not the book for you. While there is sunshine, there’s a lot more gloom, and from the very beginning, our Greek chorus narrators have warned us that it will not end well. Still, a totally engrossing read that make me think and hurt my heart.