Gentrification turns ugly in timely novel

Author Therese Anne Fowler. Contributed by John Kessel
Author Therese Anne Fowler. Contributed by John Kessel

World views clash in Therese Anne Fowler’s ‘A Good Neighborhood’

Therese Anne Fowler's new novel "A Good Neighborhood" is a cautionary tale about gentrification and the personal toll it can take when cultures collide between longtime residents and newcomers within the intimacy of a shared community.

The premise will be familiar to many intown Atlanta residents who have witnessed the tensions that can arise when upwardly mobile whites move into predominantly black neighborhoods and start making changes and driving up property taxes.

Valerie Alston-Holt is an African American professor who has lived in the leafy Oak Knoll neighborhood of an unnamed North Carolina city for 20 years. She is deeply devoted to two things. One is her son Xavier, a well-liked high school senior who has landed a scholarship to a music conservatory in San Francisco. The other is the environment, specifically plants. Valerie’s home is a modest brick ranch on a large wooded lot that she has lovingly landscaped with peonies, irises, camellias, azaleas, jasmine and more. But her most prized plant predates her: an 80-foot white oak tree that towers over the backyard.

“You might not think a tree could mean so much to a person. This tree, though, was more than a magnificent piece of arboreal history; for Valerie Alston-Holt, it was a witness and companion.”

Brad Whitman is a successful white entrepreneur and something of a minor celebrity, thanks to his appearance in a series of cheesy TV commercials advertising his heating and air company. He buys the modest home behind Valerie’s home and, greasing some palms to skirt local building codes, promptly razes the lot, removing every living thing from the soil. In its place, he has constructed an oversized modern abode that dwarfs the yard and adds a large swimming pool, visible from Valerie’s window. He shares the house with his image-conscious wife Julia, teenage stepdaughter Juniper and young daughter Lily.

Brad Whitman is not overtly racist. His racism is subtle and unspoken. For instance, he only employs white HVAC technicians. “Brad understood a truth about his fellow Southern citizens; a great many of them would not open their door to a man of color — especially a black man, no matter how clean-cut or polite. And Brad couldn’t afford to have customers refuse to do business with him owning to their unreasonable fears.”

At first, the neighbors make nice, despite Valerie’s disgust with the Whitmans’ intrusive new home, but two points of tension quickly arise. A romance blossoms between Juniper and Xavier, which is complicated not only by their racial differences but by Juniper’s “purity promise,” about which much ado has been made. The second is less predictable. It presents itself as a subtle fluttering of leaves from the limbs of the oak tree. Nothing can be done, the tree is dying, most likely a result of the swimming pool construction, which destroyed the tree’s shallow root system. Valerie is bereft at first, then she gets mad and sets in motion a series of events that eventually turn tragic.

Fowler is the New York Times bestselling author of the historical novels "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald" and "A Well-Behaved Woman," about the Vanderbilt family. Her saga of the Whitmans and the Alston-Holts is told from the perspective of a Greek chorus of neighbors who tsk and tut over the proceedings. It's an interesting artistic choice that adds a layer of emotional distance between the reader and the characters. The effect mimics that sense of remove we feel when observing our neighbors' comings and goings from afar and gossiping about it later at the market.

Ultimately what’s at stake between Brad and Valerie is more than just an oak tree, their children’s budding romance or even their racial differences. The real point of contention is their competing philosophies about how to exist in the world. Brad prizes possessions, status symbols, recreation and cronyism. Valerie values nature, hard work, social justice and saving the planet. It’s easy to understand how their passions become inflamed when forced to reckon with one another in such close proximity. Homeownership is a kind of sanctioned self-entitlement. The idea that one’s home is one’s castle runs deep in our culture. It’s no wonder things can quickly turn ugly when the battleground is one’s home turf. To a lesser degree, perhaps, it is a drama that plays out in intown neighborhoods across the country.

“A Good Neighborhood” has the unenviable challenge of being published in the aftermath of the “American Dirt” controversy. Like “American Dirt” author Jeanine Cummins, Fowler is a white woman telling a story about a woman of color. But if anything, “A Good Neighborhood” offers a lesson in how an author can successfully write from the perspective of a different race or culture. Valerie and Xavier are not portrayed as racial stereotypes. They are complex, fleshed-out characters with traits both good and bad. Interestingly, it’s Fowler’s white characters that seem more one-dimensional and predictable. “A Good Neighborhood” would have benefited from Fowler developing the Whitmans with as much nuance as she created the Alston-Holts.

But that’s a minor quibble. “A Good Neighborhood” is a modern-day fable about a very contemporary problem that has bigger ramifications than a row between neighbors that goes too far. It’s a timely story about what happens when we fail to consider how our actions affect others and the tragedy that can befall us if we can’t coexist with those whose values are different from our own.


“A Good Neighborhood”

By Therese Anne Fowler

St. Martin’s Press

288 pages, $14.95