I seldom say that I hated a book because I can usually find something redeeming about it, but I hated Therese Anne Fowler’s A Good Neighborhood (2020). This review will be quite brief and in a slightly different format because I don’t want to launch into a tirade about my visceral reaction to this novel.
Things I liked
- The writing isn’t awful – it’s quite strong. Fowler knows how to tell a story.
- The novel is told from multiple narrators, and one narrator is the “neighborhood” – I’ve always enjoyed place as a character and collective voices as one. It works well in this novel and probably should have been used exclusively.
- The civil lawsuit based on the builder and homeowner getting a variance that should never have been approved based on the proximity of Valerie’s ancient and glorious tree. (This really should have been the plot.)
- The cover.
Things I disliked
- The attempt to provide POVs of Valerie and Zay. I’m not saying a white person cannot write the POV of black person, I just don’t think Fowler was successful. She addresses this criticism in the author’s note, which, unlike most novels, appears at the beginning of the novel. Fowler attempts to justify writing those POVs, which leads me to believe she knew it was bad idea and not properly executed.
- The character development was severely hampered by Fowler’s attempts to make this novel something that it’s just not. Valerie and Zay never seemly fully developed or well-thought out.
- Valerie is a kick-ass and wicked smart ecologist. Her fight for the tree should have triggered her to compare herself to other wicked smart ecologists – Rachel Carson quickly springs to mind – however, Fowler has Valerie compare her fight for the tree to Rosa Parks and MLK. The constant dropping of names like Parks and King and John Lewis seem more like the author attempting to let the reader know she knows who they are.
- The stepdaughter/stepfather trope. This could have been done quite differently if Juniper’s POV is anti-Brad. Instead, Fowler nods to Lolita and paints her the temptress. This is supported by Juniper’s own sections, not just Brad’s sections. This should never be a plot point used to propel the narrative. Never. Fowler attempts to walk it back after putting it out there, but it’s too late.
- The ending is one of the worst endings I’ve ever read. It’s not just unsatisfying because of how it ends, it’s disappointing in that Zay’s and Valerie’s actions are entirely uncharacteristic based on the development, however limited, Fowler gives them.
There are a lot of people who love this book. People who think that it perfectly captures the plight of Black Americans in the South and that by reading it, they’ve broadened their horizons. While I applaud Therese Anne Fowler’s attempt at casting a light on racial disparities in North Carolina, this book will not diversify your shelves and I cannot recommend it.