Episode 11: A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler with Laurie & Alyce Transcript

This is the Swampscott Library’s Librarians by the Sea podcast, where we share our love of a good book with you. I’m your host, Julie Travers.

Julie: Today I’m here with Laurie Souza, who is a reference librarian; and Alyce Deveau, who is the director; again. We’ve had them both on the podcast before, and all three of us have read the new novel A Good Neighborhood, which is by Therese Anne Fowler. She’s written a couple of other popular books recently in the last couple of years, including Z, which is a novel about Zelda Fitzgerald, and then another one – I think it was called Well-Behaved Woman, maybe?

Laurie: Yes. Yeah, I have a hold on that; I was hoping to get that at some point.

Julie: Yeah, I’ve read both of those and they were really good. This is different from those; those other two that she’s written in the past were historical fiction. Both take place in the 20th century. This is a present-day novel, and it is about two families that live in a neighborhood called Oak Knoll in North Carolina, and it’s the story of what happens to them over the course of, probably just a summer, I think.

So, to start off, would each of you mind giving me, sort of your general impressions of the book? What did you think about it?

Alyce: I liked it. I think it’s flawed, but I did like it. I enjoyed reading it; it kept my attention, I didn’t get bored through it, and I read it right to the end; and I did enjoy it, with some reservations.

Julie: Mm-hmm.

Laurie: I would say just about what Alyce said. I did have some problems with the book, especially with the character Brad, but in general it did capture my attention. I wanted to go back because I did care about a couple of the characters, and – so it was a book that I was kind of excited at the end of the day to sit down and read. But I wouldn’t say – I think it definitely has, I think it’s definitely flawed. But I’m a sucker for good characters; so it did pull me in, I have to say. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say I’d give it a 6.5, 7.

Alyce: I’d say seven.

Laurie: Yeah, seven.

Julie: Yeah, so it got a lot of buzz, which is, you know, probably one of the reasons why I wanted to read it; and a couple starred reviews, so that was good. I agree with both of you – I liked the idea of the novel, I thought it was a good premise, but I thought maybe the way she executed it wasn’t quite the way I wished it had gone. And I said this when we started, but I think maybe I wish it was a different author who had told the story, instead of her, just because her writing style kind of grated on me at times.

Laurie: Yeah, I was a little confused about the narrator. I mean, I know the narrator’s supposed to be the neighborhood, the neighbors, talking, but sometimes that threw me off a little bit. You know, I wasn’t sure who I was listening to, who was speaking to me. And I don’t – as a device, I don’t know how well that well that worked, to be honest.

Alyce: At first I thought it was the author who was being the narrator.

Laurie: Yeah.

Julie: Yeah.

Alyce: That she was narrating it to someone who’s reading – you know, as an unbiased observer, but then I thought it had to be the neighbors in the neighborhood, or some neighbor in the neighborhood, or whatever.

I didn’t like in the beginning being told it’s a tragedy.

Laurie: Yeah, I didn’t either.

Alyce: It’s one of the first things – I don’t need someone to tell me that I’m going to read a tragedy!

Julie: Right.

Alyce: And I found that a little aggravating, like, “In case you people are not aware, this is a tragedy.” I felt like it was almost insulting the reader.

Laurie: Yeah, I didn’t want to start off that way. Then it causes a tension for me in the rest of the reading, like, what’s really gonna happen?

Alyce: Yeah.

Laurie: – something bad is going to happen, and it’s probably not going to happen to the person that, the character, I care about – so, yeah, I was like, I didn’t really need that at the beginning. I agree.

Julie: Yeah. So what you guys are referring to is that at the very beginning, we find out that there’s a funeral for somebody, and we don’t know who it’s for, but for the rest of the book we’re sort of wondering, “When does this funeral come into play?” Because it must come in at some point, but it’s not.

Laurie: Right. You know, I heard that the narrator was considered the Greek chorus of tragedy, that’s what she was trying to – that’s how it was described in some of the reviews. And I thought, “Oh, I hadn’t really thought of it that way,” but that kind of made sense.

Julie: Yeah. I thought that having the narrator be a group of people was almost – it was sort of ominous. It gave the novel kind of, like, an ominous, sort of foreboding, tone. Maybe that’s just, even because you knew that there was a tragedy coming; but yeah, I felt like it was all eyes on this situation at all times, and that was also kind of scary, too.

What about some of the flaws that you both mentioned at the beginning of the episode? What do you think those flaws are; do you want to drill into that a little?

Laurie: Well, I was a little confused by the development of Brad. That character confused me, because I started off thinking one thing, and then it just seemed to have – his character just seems to have gone to an extreme, and I don’t quite know how that happened. Plus, he was – he made you uncomfortable because of his desire for whatever for his daughter, his affection for his stepdaughter. But he got so ugly at the end, and I was – I don’t know, it kind of caught me by surprise a little bit, like I didn’t see the development of it. So I kind of felt that was a flaw. The narrator knocked me off a little bit. Those are the only two, like, the big ones that I can think of.

Julie: Mm.

Alyce: I agree. I don’t think Brad was developed correctly.

Laurie: No.

Alyce: I think in the beginning he didn’t seem as bad. He seemed a little creepy, not evil…

Laurie: Yeah, something was off.

Alyce: I did read in one of the reviews that they didn’t like it because she named him Whitman, which could’ve been seen as ‘white man.’

Laurie: Oh, I didn’t even…

Alyce: And I didn’t even think of that myself.

Laurie: I didn’t even think of that; no, didn’t catch that at all.

Alyce: Because he was the ostentatious white man in the neighborhood.

Laurie: Yeah.

Alyce: But I don’t know. I didn’t like the development of that character. I did like the development of Xavier. I really felt she did a fairly good job with the development of that character.

Laurie: Very much so. I felt like I got to know him.

Alyce: Me too, and I liked the way she developed him.

Laurie: Mm-hmm.

Julie: Yeah, so just for context about the story – just in case people haven’t read it yet, because it is pretty new – there is a white family – the character Brad is part of the, is the dad of the family, Brad Whitman – and he has a wife, Julia; and she has a daughter, Juniper, from a previous relationship; and then the two of them, Brad and Julia, have a daughter together whose name is Lily. So there’s four white family members that live next door to a single Black mother whose name is Valerie, and her son, who is about Juniper’s age, his name is Xavier. And he’s a really talented guitarist; he’s headed to a private music school in the fall for college. So, yeah, it’s kind of about their relationship. It starts with a lawsuit about, over a tree that is in the back of Valerie’s property, that she is extremely attached to, and develops into this other, bigger, issue that comes up between them.

Alyce: I did think it was kind of clever the way – Valerie is attached to the tree in her yard. She loved the tree, and Brad and his wife love their tree, Juniper. I thought that was kind of cute, the way she used trees as kind of a symbol in both families.

Laurie: Oh, that’s interesting. Yeah.

Alyce: I found that interesting.

Laurie: Was there a reason why she named her Juniper? Because it’s a conifer, right, so it always has leaves –

Alyce: Ever-growing –

Laurie: It’s an evergreen.

Julie: So, I know we started talking a little bit about the characters, but what did you think about the characters?

Alyce: Well, as I said, I really liked Xavier. I really liked him. I felt like he was really believable. I could relate to the mother. She was proud of him – Valerie – and I think she had a pride in the fact that they had kind of made themselves. She was a self-made woman, and bringing up a son alone, and in an awkward situation where her son was half-white, half-Black, and in an area in North Carolina where segregation still is alive and well, even though it isn’t. I liked her. I liked him, too.

Julie: Yeah, part of the New York Times review that came out recently – she talked about how the characters were kind of – either good, or they were bad. Particularly, like, Xavier and his mother were considered ‘good’ people, and Brad was considered a ‘bad’ person, even though – I agree with you both that the jump between him being, kind of like a pseudo-celebrity in this small town who drives a Maserati, to suddenly being a pedophile, is kind of a big leap that the author made.

Laurie: Yeah, and that was – it seemed like a little bit of a jump, because she had really – he seemed to rescue them. You know, he refers to her as, his wife as, the “the rescue wife,” and I think – that’s kind of what it is, maybe, because I saw them as, ‘he was rescuing them,’ and then suddenly he’s a pedophile. And I just – it seemed like such a jump for me, you know?

Alyce: Yeah.

Julie: Yeah. I also thought it was strange the way that the author would sometimes compare Xavier to Brad in many different situations. I don’t know if either of you remember that?

Laurie: No, I don’t remember that.

Alyce: Well – yeah, I don’t remember that.

Laurie: No.

Julie: Sometimes she would just – I think one time, she said that both were kind of all-or-nothing type guys, and I, as a reader, I was like, “Why are we comparing an 18-year-old boy to this grown man

Laurie: Their intensity, you mean, like –

Julie: Yeah. And I just didn’t see why we had to compare, until –

Laurie: The intensity about them?

Julie: Yeah, until…

Laurie: Yeah, I didn’t notice that.

Alyce: I didn’t either. Yeah, I didn’t either.

Julie: This book has a – it deals with a lot of issues.

Laurie: Yep.

Julie: Throughout the course of the book, one of the issues that they deal with extensively is the role of gender. So what did you think about that in particular? I think there’s a lot to say about what the Whitman view of – for Juniper was, and what they thought would make her best life. Did you have any feelings about that?

Laurie: That was like a stomach-turner, calling her JuniPure and the whole purity promise or pact, I forget what it’s called, that was just – oh. That turned my stomach, really, that they would tell a girl that her worth is in her purity. And then encouraging her to – ‘you don’t need to go to college; you just need to find a husband to take care of you.’ I just – I guess from, you know, being in Massachusetts – does that really still happen? I’m sure it does, but I just – it seems so foreign to me, you know?

Julie: Yeah.

Alyce: And Valerie was just the opposite, where she was just the woman supporting the family – had a boyfriend, had had a husband – you know what I mean, like, she was, like, totally different. Their ideas of what the roles of women were, were almost two totally different things in each home.

Laurie: Which, you know, Julia was a survivor herself. She was a single mom until Juniper was 10, right, so –

Alyce: But she bought into Brad.

Laurie: Well, he rescued her.

Alyce: He rescued her.

Laurie: Do they imply that somehow Julia was kind of on the hunt for a man to take care of her? Isn’t that somehow implied about her?

Alyce: Yeah.

Julie: What do you think of all the flashbacks in the novel? To, like, Julia’s past, Brad’s past, Valerie’s past – you know, everybody’s past was in the book.

Alyce: Well, I think it was her way of developing the character.

Laurie: Not very well!

Alyce: But not very…

Laurie: Brad was very vague. I didn’t understand how he came from that to what he – I didn’t understand that.

Julie: Yeah. I thought – so, two-thirds of the book is just, basically, flashbacks on each of the characters, and then the last third of the book is where it gets interesting, and I felt like we could’ve maybe switched that, the weight that she placed on those people, but…

Laurie: Oh…

Alyce: Yeah. I do think it helped to, to get a better picture of how Valerie was and where she came from – the white husband who died; you know, like, it wasn’t ‘just’ a single Black mother with a child; you know, that type of thing. She had a ‘normal,’ if you would, ‘normal’ life that kind of fell apart when her husband died. I think it helped with her, but I don’t think it helped with Julia and Brad, the flashbacks.

Laurie: No. I had a connection to Valerie, definitely, and I think that’s because, you know, the love she has for her son and also for the plants – for the tree. I mean, she loves that tree. I can understand that, loving a tree. That tree represented a lot. It was – it represented a lot in her life. That’s the tree she hugged when she was mourning her husband, and, you know, feeling overwhelmed by being a single mother. I could see how she wanted for that child – that tree was like her child. It was like that tree had – that tree had deep roots where it was, and it’s like she had deep roots in that neighborhood, too. She was like the oak tree in the neighborhood, too.

Julie: So the book is called A Good Neighborhood. What makes a neighborhood good, or bad, to you?

Alyce: Well, the people who live in it, for one thing; the care of the homes, for another; and a feeling of security. I think that would be my three things to make me feel I was in a good neighborhood.

Laurie: I think a good neighborhood was, it was the connection the neighbors had with each other, and how caring they were. I really liked – I liked how they described Valerie. You know, she – they, neighbors took care of each other. They didn’t always like each other, necessarily; they weren’t perfect; not everyone got along; you know, there were a couple of characters in the group, like the book group, and stuff. But I think they did care and support for each other; and I think for that, it was a good neighborhood. I think Brad looked at it differently – he looked at the location as a good neighborhood – but for them, I think it was their connection.

Julie: Yeah, I really liked the scene of all of them at the book club…

Laurie: Yeah, and they fought, and they disagreed, you know, rolling their eyes at each other, but they were friends – they were neighbors, they were good neighbors – and they cared about each other.

Alyce: And I liked when Julia tried to fit in by bringing pâté de foie gras – I mean…

Laurie: I know.

Alyce: And I felt bad for her.

Laurie: I felt bad for her too.

Alyce: I felt bad for her, when she arrived with pâté de foie gras.

Laurie: Yeah. She was looking to fit in.

Alyce: Not exactly what we serve at a book group at the library.

Julie: No!

Laurie: And she was grateful for what she had. She couldn’t believe the house she lived in. She spent many years living just the opposite of that, and she made it pretty clear that she felt very grateful for that.

Julie: Yeah. I liked the scenes that she was written about in. I liked her as a character, actually, until things got ugly; but, yeah, I felt like she had a serious journey to get there, and she made use of it.

Laurie: And she seems to turn around at the end – I mean, I think Brad told a good story, and I think it was easy enough to believe it without really asking too many questions, you know, about what really happened.

Alyce: Talk about twisting the facts to fit what you want it to fit, you know, and – he did a good job.

Julie: Yeah, he did.

Alyce: Handling it, if you would.

Laurie: If you didn’t know what happened, and then he came and you listened to his story, it was pretty convincing.

Alyce: Oh, right. He did a really good job.

Laurie: Yeah. It was very stress – I thought the ending was very stressful.

Alyce: Yeah.

Julie: Mm-hmm.

Alyce: I was just saying, you told me to read it – you had read it, and I read it because you had recommended it, and I do think it would be a good book group book.

Julie: Yes.

Alyce: There are tons of things in that book to talk about. All of the issues that they had, I think would be a  great book group book. I think it would be a book that not everyone would love, which is really a good book group book.

Laurie: That’s a good book! That’s a good book club book. There’s a lot to discuss.

Julie: Even just the ending I thought was really, really shocking, and there would be a lot to discuss.

Laurie: Yeah. I kind of saw it coming, and it broke my heart, you know, and that’s when I was like, turning the pages quickly. I had a sense, when she went away for the weekend and he lied – he didn’t say that he had received that phone call from the lawyer – I kind of knew, you know? That broke my heart.

Alyce: It was a heart-rending tragedy.

Laurie: It really was, yeah.

Alyce: Yeah, it really was – even though from the beginning you knew it was a tragedy.

Julie: Mm-hmm.

Laurie: But it – oh, I don’t want to give the ending away, but –

Alyce: No, no. I think people should read it – I think it’s a book well worth reading.

Laurie: I don’t know how much of a tragedy it would’ve been if it was, maybe, another character. You know?

Julie: Yeah, I agree, I think that everybody should read it and could read it. What did you guys think about – I don’t know if anybody else picked up on this, but she put her acknowledgments at the beginning of the book, and most of the acknowledgments are just her saying that felt like she had to tell the story because she had been – it had already been formed in her mind; but she was hesitant to tell it because she would have to tell the story of two Black characters as the main characters, and she is a white author. Did you catch the acknowledgments, or read the acknowledgements? I don’t usually, but I just, it was at the very beginning. 

Laurie: Yeah, I don’t think I did.

Alyce: I didn’t

I did read in a review, though, one of the reviews, they asked her why she felt she was qualified to do that, and she said you do a lot of research before you try to write. So she must have felt she was. 

Alyce: Yeah.

Laurie: Yeah, I read that too. Some people don’t think she pulled it off.

Alyce: Yeah.

Julie: Right. I mean, I think that was her way of trying to get, like, out in front of any criticism that she was going to face, because there is so much –

Alyce: Oh, right.

Julie: – backlash that authors face, if they – you know, if they ever make a mistake that a Black author wouldn’t have made in the same situations.

Laurie: Yep.

Alyce: She covered herself right from the start.

Julie: Yeah. And I think it was her just trying to overcompensate for some of those issues, by just going, like, kind of too hard. She just tried to span the board, I think, way too much. 

Laurie: Do you mean, like, through Valerie – you mean, through the character of Valerie and Valerie’s beliefs, you mean?

Julie: Maybe hers, but, I mean, she hit climate change through Valerie, she hit the idea, you know, gender roles and feminism. I mean, there was just, like, –

Laurie: Corruption, corruption –

Alyce: Right.

Julie: Not that any of those issues are not important to address, but I…

Laurie: No, you’re right. She touched upon them – maybe not appropriately, either.

Julie: I feel like she was just kind of, maybe…

Alyce: I don’t know if she’d really love this review of her book!

Julie: I’m sorry! I did like it, I liked the story, but…

Laurie: I think it’s definitely worth reading and then, you know, discussing it with somebody, because I –

Alyce: Discussing it – I think it’s definitely a book you have to talk about after you read it.

Laurie: I agree.

Alyce: That’s kind of why we’re doing this, because I wanted to see what other people thought of it, you know? I wanted to talk about it.

Laurie: Well, thank you, Julie.

Alyce: Thank you very much.

Julie: Yeah, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Alyce: Alright.

Laurie: Alright.

Alyce: Bye!

Laurie: Bye, guys!