I’ve read mixed reviews of Christine Pride and Jo Piazza’s joint novel We Are Not Like Them (Atria Books, 2021), but this was to be expected with such a heavy topic. Some of the criticism was very fair, but much of it revolved around unrealistic expectations and a failure to recognize the delicate balance Pride and Piazza had to draw to even give this novel life. A select few dripped with racial tension, prejudices and microaggressions, but those can and should be wholly disregarded.
“When the bullets hit him, first in the arm, then his stomach, it doesn’t feel like he’d always imagined it would. Because of course, as a Black boy growing in this neighborhood, he’d imagined it.”
And so opens what proves to be an extremely weighty and timely novel that is so undeserving of criticism calling it “trite.” Bookended with Justin’s murder at the hands of two cops at the front and Justin’s mother months later at the close, the novel makes it very clear that what happens in the middle isn’t a ready-made solution or a happily ever after, and the dialogue created BY the novel is more important than the dialogue IN the novel.
The novel alternates POVs between two childhood friends, Jen and Riley. Jen, the white friend, was pretty much raised by Riley’s family due to an absentee mom and neglectful home life. The two girls grew up together as close as sisters and maintained that closeness even after they were separated by school and jobs. When Riley returns home, she’s a local celebrity – a reporter well on her way to the anchor desk. Jen is married to a cop and finally pregnant (thanks to Riley who helped fund the IVF treatments). They are together when Jen gets the call – her husband has been involved in a shooting. Riley gets a call from her station – an unarmed black boy has been shot by the police.
What unfolds is messy and gut-wrenching as the two friends battle with internal demons and external perceptions. Riley feels pulled to cover the story because it speaks to her but also because it can advance her career. Jen doesn’t understand why Riley is a part of the “media circus” that is painting her husband a murderer, but she also doesn’t know how to stand by a man who shot an unarmed child or how she could survive without him if he’s imprisoned.
How the two friends interact with each other and how they don’t, how their friendship is tested and subsequently altered by the local shooting of a young black boy, is intended as a jumping off point for discussion. Some readers find that alienating, I find it realistic. This isn’t a novel that could solve race issues in America; open and honest dialogue and recognition of race and privilege are ways we can grow not only as readers but as people, and these are the ways that both Riley and Jen learn to circumnavigate in the novel – allowing readers to use their journeys to advance their own growth and understanding.
Read this book.