A contemporary North Carolina suburb might seem an unlikely setting for Shakespearean tragedy. But that’s exactly what unfolds in Therese Anne Fowler’s A Good Neighborhood, whose first paragraph hints at what’s coming: “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame.”
A loose reworking of Romeo and Juliet, A Good Neighborhood opens on the day the Whitmans, a white family, move into the overly fancy house they’ve built in Oak Knoll, the “good neighborhood” of the title. Oak Knoll’s residents are proud of their trees, their progressive outlook and the neighborhood’s multiracial makeup.
Most dismayed by the Whitmans’ presence is next-door neighbor Valerie Alston-Holt, an ecology and forestry professor and mom to high school senior Xavier. Valerie is black; her husband and Xavier’s dad, who died when Xavier was a toddler, was white. Valerie is pretty sure that Brad and Julia Whitman are racist, but she’s also fixated on her magnificent prize oak tree, because the Whitmans, in building their trophy house, have disturbed the tree’s roots, and the tree is starting to die.
Meanwhile Xavier and Juniper, the Whitmans’ sheltered older daughter, fall for one another. They keep their romance secret, as Xavier knows how upset his mom would be, and Juniper took a purity pledge at 13—no dating, no boyfriends, no sex before marriage.
The story ticks forward through the summer, rotating through the viewpoints of Valerie, Brad and Julia, Xavier and Juniper. Throughout, a chorus of neighbors intrudes to speculate and offer background information, an intriguing mix of omniscient narration and gossipy lamentation. Although the transitions between the chorus and the other perspectives aren’t always seamless, this structure adds depth to the sense of Shakespearean tragedy.
A Good Neighborhood is fast-paced and thoughtful, and like Bruce Holsinger’s The Gifted School, it finds trouble in paradise, mapping the divisions among people who think of themselves as “good.”