The following is an excerpt from Therese Anne Fowler's new novel A Good Neighborhood. Therese Anne Fowler is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgeraldand A Well-Behaved Woman. Raised in the Midwest, she moved to North Carolina in 1995. She holds a BA in sociology/cultural anthropology and an MFA in creative writing from North Carolina State University.
The Oak Knoll book club met at Valerie Alston-Holt’s house on the third Thursday of every month. In the early years, the club members had taken turns hosting. Assigning the schedule, though, was always a hassle, and Valerie, as part of her adjustment to widowhood, yearned for the commotion of having her house full, so she’d offered to host perpetually and no one objected. Getting away from their domestic duties for an evening appealed to the other members, and this way no one’s husband would complain about the cackling laughter (Belinda) or the hooting laughter (Lisa) or the number of empty wine bottles lining the table at evening’s end. Also, the members enjoyed hearing Xavier playing guitar in the background if he was home and practicing.
For this May meeting, most of the club was in attendance. The others wished they could be; it was the first public connecting of Valerie and Julia, and we all were curious to see how Valerie would behave. We didn’t expect trouble—Valerie wasn’t the type to deliberately make someone feel uncomfortable. She was, as Xavier had said, always a good neighbor, quick to check on a sick friend or new parents, a great organizer of birthday parties and bereavement committees. Even so, everyone knew she was in actual psychic pain over last summer’s clear-cutting and that Julia Whitman was a representative of the offense that pained her.
“Hello? Am I late? I cut through the yard,” Julia said, knocking on the doorframe as she arrived at Valerie’s back door. Valerie waved her in. Valerie and two other women were standing at the kitchen table loading their plates with food. Julia said, “I hope that was okay.”
“That’s what gates are for,” Valerie told her, taking the basket Julia held out as an offering.
Inside the basket was a tin of foie gras and assorted gourmet crackers, along with a bottle of pinot noir that had been recommended by the wine guy at the market. Julia hadn’t wanted to go cheap, but now that she was standing in Valerie’s kitchen, she felt like she’d overdone it. —Which was no criticism of Valerie’s home; the house was tiny but charming and a lot nicer than Julia’s childhood home (a trailer). Nicer, too, than pretty much all of the places she’d lived as an adult before marrying Brad. Rather, Julia suddenly felt she was going to seem pretentious. Foie gras? Jesus. She’d been too eager for these women’s approval and now they were going to think she was an ass.
Julia suddenly felt she was going to seem pretentious. She brought foie gras? Jesus.
As Valerie unpacked the basket and added its contents to the other foods laid out on the kitchen table, Julia said, “Honestly, I didn’t see the point of having a gate there, but the fence company said we’d be glad we gave ourselves easy access to the rear of the property, for maintenance—”
“Meaning when my honeysuckle and pyracantha start taking over,” Valerie joked.
“I love honeysuckle,” Julia said.
“As if you’d allow any of your plantings to get out of control,” said one of the other women, who then introduced herself. “You must be Julia. I’m Lisa Orlean. I live on Mimosa Court. Kelli says you all just moved in?”
Valerie said to Lisa, “Right over there,” while pointing with the knife she’d been using to slice herself a piece of cheese.
Lisa nodded. “Impressive house. I was in it while it was under construction. I think pretty much everyone was.”
“Thanks,” Julia said. “We’re very happy with it.”
“Not I,” said Valerie. “I mean, I wasn’t in it during construction.”
“Of course not you,” said Lisa. She asked Julia, “What do you do?”
“Do . . . ?”
“Oh, right.” It had been a while since anyone asked Julia that. Her friends from the old neighborhood and the women she knew from tennis and the gym were all at-home moms. She said, “Well, I used to be an administrator,” a bald overstatement of her prior work history. “Now I do a lot of volunteering at my daughters’ school.”
“Great,” said Lisa. She was a petite black woman who looked to be about thirty years old.
Julia said, “You?”
“I founded and run a nonprofit that provides medical and health supplies to, mostly, Central American communities, though we try to also step in elsewhere when there’s a temporary crisis—hurricanes, earthquakes, like that. We coordinate with the local Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders, et cetera.”
“Wow,” Julia said. A social aid nonprofit. Lisa had founded it. Julia felt equally surprised and diminished.
Lisa said, “If you’re looking for new volunteer opportunities, give me a shout. We can use your help.”
Julia listened for any note of judgment or criticism and heard none. She said, “I will. Thanks.”
Xavier appeared in the kitchen and grabbed a plate. “Oh, hey, Ms. Whitman.”
“Hi, Xavier,” Julia said. She hadn’t expected to see him. “Are you in the book club, too?”
“No,” he said, filling his plate but avoiding the foie gras. “Food thief is all.”
Valerie said, “He ate right after school, and now he’s eating again, and he’ll have a snack after his homework, too.”
“No more homework this year, though,” he said. “Exam prep is all. Which will also require snacks. Nice to see you again,” he said to Julia before exiting through a door off the kitchen.
Julia said to Valerie, “He’s so . . . I’m not sure what to call it. Grown-up?”
“Self-possessed,” Lisa said.
“That’s it. It’s impressive. You’ve done a good job with him, Valerie.”
“Thank you,” Valerie said. “I really appreciate you saying so.”
The trio joined the eight other women who’d gathered in the living room and were seated with plates on their laps and drinks in hand, apprising one another of the latest goings-on in their lives. It was a mixed group in every aspect: race, ethnicity, age, education level, and now that Julia was among them, class (if only by marriage and luck). What a wild turn of events, Julia thought, that she, who’d lived in a ramshackle trailer half her life and had dropped out of high school, was probably being perceived as the snooty one.
Valerie had added six metal folding chairs to the furniture layout, which consisted of a long gray couch and a green striped loveseat, one end table, one coffee table, a tall, narrow bookshelf, and a three-tier wrought-iron plant stand that was more or less hidden under an array of lush houseplants. There was no television. This more than anything else made an impression on Julia; her new house had . . . (she stopped to count) . . . six TVs, each one of them “smart” devices hardwired to super-high-speed internet. Further, Brad had directed the installation of whole-house audio and security systems, both of which he could control remotely with apps on his phone. They had automated landscape lighting and an irrigation system, too. Brad loved technology. He had suggested that Julia do her grocery shopping online and have everything delivered—leaving more time in her day for . . . what? She enjoyed pushing the cart up and down the aisles, taking her time, perusing the varieties of produce and proteins, the soups and spices, coffees, pastas, pastries . . . If anything made her feel like a queen in this, her reconstituted life, it was having the time and ability to shop for any food she liked. She still sometimes bought SpaghettiOs just because, and ate them in secret when no one was home.
Kelli Hanes, the white OR nurse who lived across the street from Julia and who’d invited her here, said, “Everyone, this is Julia Whitman, newest Oak Knoll resident. She told me she’s an avid reader, and I said, “I’ve got the group for you!” This is her first-ever book club meeting, so be nice.”
“When are we ever not nice?” said Belinda Johnson, and then she cackled with laughter.
Kelli said, “We all remember last month, when you and Esther fought about whether Lolita was complicit in Humbert’s treatment of her.”
“Well, that was a ludicrous judgment.”
“Where is Esther?” said Lisa.
Valerie answered, “Probably home sticking pins in an effigy of Belinda. No, I’m kidding. She called me; Hank’s not well. She said she hoped to be here, but only if he’d improved, so . . .”
“Hank’s sick? What’s the matter?”
Valerie said, “Cough, weakness—they’re doing tests. Esther says probably heart failure. He’s almost eighty,” she told Julia. “His health’s been poor for a while now.”
Julia listened to the women as they made a plan to visit and aid the couple, Esther and Hank. This, she thought, is what it is like to be a part of a community. These women all knew one another, they cared actively—it made her happy just to be in the room with them. Though she was sorry for ailing Hank, whoever he was.
This, she thought, is what it is like to be a part of a community. These women all knew one another, they cared actively—it made her happy just to be in the room with them.
It wasn’t like this in their old neighborhood. The families were loosely familiar with one another, but everyone minded their own business. The only women Julia had been even a little bit close to were the three who also sent their kids to Blakely and one who played tennis in the same league she was in. Oh, sure, everyone waved to everyone in passing. But no one made a schedule to bring food and check in on the sick old neighbor. Possibly because there hadn’t been any sick old neighbors—everyone was youngish. If any of the youngish residents had been sick, no one had said so. If there was a book club, she hadn’t heard about it.
Eventually the women here in Valerie’s living room got around to the book of the evening. There was a lively discussion, with some debate but no fights. Julia loved how even something as personal as the experience of reading a novel could be made into a community activity. She loved hearing these intelligent women speak thoughtfully about what they’d read. She noticed, however, that although people had gotten up throughout the discussion to get seconds and even thirds of some of the dishes, the foie gras remained untouched except for the portion she’d taken herself.
Later, when the others had gone and Julia was helping Valerie clean up, Julia slid the tin into a waxed paper bag and said with attempted levity, “I guess this wasn’t as much of a hit as the book.”
“Don’t worry about it. People have different tastes.”
“It makes me look snooty, right? You can tell me.”
“Yeah?” Valerie said, looking closely at Julia to see if she meant what she’d said. “Okay. So it isn’t exactly about snooty, although maybe a couple of people think that. Marta—the one sitting at the left end of the sofa? She is one hundred percent against the bourgeoisie, so she’s never going to love you, but don’t worry because it isn’t personal. Most everybody else? It’s about how foie gras is made. How they force-feed the birds in order to create a fatty liver. They put tubes down their throats. It’s pretty awful.”
Julia imagined this and was horrified. “I . . . God, I had no idea. How do you—how is it that you all know this?”
“There was a story about it on NPR a while back. We talked about it at the time.”
“I sort of wish you hadn’t told me,” Julia said. “Brad loves the stuff.” She put the tin into the trash—then just as quickly wished she hadn’t, because it seemed doubly a waste that way and Brad would eat it if she brought it home. But then she’d have to say why no one here had eaten it, and he’d probably call the women bleeding hearts and maybe even bring it up at the housewarming party they were going to throw . . .
She left the tin in the trash.
Valerie extracted the tin and scraped its contents into her countertop compost bin, saying, “Ignorance is bliss for sure, but it won’t help the ducks and geese. Maybe knowing doesn’t help much, either, though. I mean, lots of people are still going to buy foie gras and every other offensive or dangerous thing I boycott. Don’t even get me started on plastics! I do what I can, though, so that I can at least face myself in the mirror. Anyway,” she said, “tonight was good, right? You enjoyed it?”
Julia nodded. “Is it like this with every book?”
“Some invite more contention. As you heard about Lolita. Ever read it?”
Julia shook her head. “I’ve heard of it, of course. It’s the one about that teenage . . . what, temptress? She seduces—”
“Not a teen, and not a temptress, and no seduction,” Valerie said. “She’s twelve when she’s kidnapped and corrupted. Raped, basically.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize. And Esther—the one you were talking about, she thinks the girl is complicit?”
Valerie said, “Esther’s eighty-one and comes from a very traditional upbringing. She feels that if a girl has sex before marriage, even if she’s forced, it’s because she was asking for it one way or another. The girl shouldn’t have dressed a certain way, or looked at a man, or been alone with him or alone at all—you name it, she’s got her justifications. It made Belinda really angry. Made me angry, too, to tell the truth. Too many young women have been traumatized by men and then also by attitudes like Esther’s! It’s no wonder most of them never report the crime—to anyone.”
“True.” Julia nodded. She hesitated a moment, then said, “That was me, once upon a time. I was thirteen and it was my mom’s boss. Well, one of her bosses.”
From A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler. Copyright © 2020 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.