Good Neighbors dissects one summer when the residents of Maple Street implode, hunting down a potentially fabricated boogeyman. All against the backdrop of an unbearable heatwave, the appearance of a massive sinkhole, and the recovery of a body.
The story pits the Wildes—a down-and-out family from Brooklyn who are new to Maple Street and don’t quite fit in—against the Schroeders, beloved stalwarts who have a few too many skeletons in their numerous closets. The heroes and villains should be obvious—but perhaps not?
Sarah Langan (Writer)
February 2, 2021
I love a good mystery and couldn’t wait to get stuck into a book about the machinations of people living in cloistered suburbs. It’s a great setting for suspense—all those inner demons hidden from the prying eyes of neighbours. Everyone trying to be on their best behaviour to save face during neighbourhood-wide parties. That’s what I was expecting when I picked up Good Neighbors—it’s not what I got.
At the book festival I used to work at, I remember hearing multiple publishers say that if a book doesn’t get their attention within the first 50 pages, they move on. It isn’t till after page 100 that anything of import happens in Good Neighbors. In all honesty, I was ready to give up by page 33. Not only because the story didn’t feel interesting, but because I couldn’t quite tell whether it was pastiche.
For a book that takes itself seriously—as I eventually figured out as I read more—the first 100 pages are so full of tropes and stereotypes, that I thought the book was an elaborate joke that I wasn’t in on. But nope, once the primary event that propels the story occurs—Shelly Schroeder falling into the sinkhole—that’s when the book comes to life and moves away from being so trope-y. There are still a few tropes later, as well as plenty of stereotypes for certain characters, and some mindbogglingly bizarre moments—a character brandishes a gun at his neighbours and is surprised to be clobbered for it–but it feels more like a real book from that point.
Before then, Good Neighbors is a real slog, and I would have given up had I not been committed to this review. What is meant to serve as setup detracts from the reading experience—this is a book that would have benefited massively from revealing personality traits and life events at a much later date. We get to see the events of the story from Gertie, Arlo, and Julia Wilde’s points of views, we also learn a ton about their history—this colours how they view the residents of Maple Street and why they react to events in a particular way. It also explains why their neighbours don’t like them as much—they’re obvious outsiders, from their jobs to the way they dress. Does that explain a whole neighbourhood turning against them? The book suggests it does but I’m not so sure.
On the other hand, the same technique detracts from our understanding of Rhea Schroeder. We are shown her past—or the way she remembers it—early on in Good Neighbors. But necessary details are left out—very obviously to be revealed later. It feels manipulative because it isn’t Rhea who is denying us the details—this is the author’s way of keeping us hanging till the end, so we can’t understand Rhea’s motivations. Knowing what we do about Rhea makes her actions confusing. Why is she with her distant husband if she’s looking for companionship? Their romance makes no sense. There’s no chemistry and no connection. But we’re meant to believe they love each other and wanted to be married. They have four children but neither enjoys being in a family. Rhea says she loves her children but we never see it—they all seem to be bent to her will. Is this a new development or has it been going on for longer? Why does Shelly not look like the other children?
The way all the Schroeders are written is confusing throughout this book. We see Rhea and Shelly discussing her friendship with Julia—Shelly proclaims that she cares deeply about Julia. But the very next instance, Shelly is bullying Julia to the point that they get into a physical fight. It’s apparently so Shelly can get Julia alone but the hurtful things she says—including insulting Julia’s brother, who has difficulty adjusting in social circumstances—is enough to end any friendship, teenage or adult. The switch in Shelly’s personality in these scenes seems so sudden and unexplained, I had to go back and check if I’d skipped some pages. I hadn’t.
There are a few too many instances when I was confused in this book—and not the kind of confused that gets explained later and makes you feel silly for questioning the author. I straight up don’t know what some scenes and dialogues were referring to in this book. While the first 100 pages are the most egregious—an editor is desperately needed here—there are moments in the latter half of the book that also had me questioning what I had missed.
As if reading Good Neighbors wasn’t a frustrating enough experience, I have so many issues with how certain social elements were handled. There is way too much ableist and fatphobic language in this book. I could try to forgive it if it was part of the dialogue and meant to display the regressive attitudes of the residents, but it’s in the text. How did nobody pick up on these?
I’m not a fan of the way Good Neighbors handles mental illness. We should be beyond the point when a character’s mental illness is used as a catch-all for all their aggressive behaviour and used to paint them as a danger to society. We know better now and the fact that this book ends up painting a character with mental illness as the villain of the piece just because is infuriating.
The way Gertie’s beauty is presented as a reason for the reader to root for her is disturbing—had she been ugly, would she have not been worth fighting for? Would she have deserved the things that happened to her? The antagonistic Rhea, and most of the neighbourhood, are physically unattractive, and are also shown to be in the wrong alongside being bullies. It’s weird to come across such binaries about attractiveness and worth.
Then there’s the tokenism. There is one lesbian couple in this book—they appear after the 100st page and have little to do with the story. Why would a queer couple move into an area where they would be the only queer people? They aren’t accepted either—we are privy to an interaction from a neighbouring family who call them unnatural. They’re included solely to make the book look like it’s with the times. It’s not.
The only people of colour are the Singh family. I was surprised to see Indian representation in Good Neighbors—but the more I read, the more I wished the author had left them out. The Singh family appear to be Sikh—I’m deducing this from an interaction they have with a neighbour who accuses them of wanting to put everyone in burqas. Sigh.
Sikhs in the USA and Canada have often been the targets of Islamophobic attacks because of their turbans. I’m assuming that’s why this neighbour makes such a comment—not only is she an Islamophobe but she doesn’t know that Sikhism is a whole different religion. Well, if that’s the case, neither does the author. Because the target of the diatribe starts talking about how burqas aren’t part of Hinduism. If the Singh family are Sikhs, they wouldn’t be talking about Hinduism—those are two different religions. Hindus with the surname Singh hail from very specific regions in India and nothing in the text seems to suggest that this family is from those parts.
We later learn that the Singh have a huge brood and drive a crappy car—because let’s really lean into the stereotypes for the one family of colour, right? It feels like the author added this family after a quick Google, assuming that Indians were a monolith that could be represented by the Singh family—only one of whom has an Indian name, not a Sikh one, because that was too hard to Google? If you’re going to do representation badly, it’s best not to do it. But there’s no excuse right now. There are sensitivity readers who would have picked up on this and suggested corrections.
There are moments in the plot that were interesting—the way Maple Street turns against the Wildes because of a few lies shows how easily mob mentality can take hold. But even this feels like a plot-hole. Interspersed throughout the book are interviews from a book about the incidents in Good Neighbors. It seems that everyone has made up their minds about the Wildes but when one gets to the end of the book, these interviews—which have been taken years after the event—contradict the evidence that the neighbourhood has seen. If this is another intentional misdirect, where was it meant to go?
The setting of Maple Street, in Long Island, plays a part in the events of Good Neighbors. The only problem is that I can’t quite picture most of it. The author is from Long Island and clearly knows the area well. That does not translate into the text, unfortunately. Despite the map included in the book, I got the sense that Maple Street was both claustrophobic and expansive, which made picturing where certain events were happening in relation to others very confusing. At times, the sinkhole seems far enough from the residences for people to have private conversations—at another time, everyone could hear everything happening at the sinkhole from their homes.
Good Neighbors is a book that I would have happily given up reading within the first few pages. It’s a pastiche dressed in noir, full of tropes that died out years ago, and stereotypes that only come from lack of research. Coupled with plot-holes, too many changes in points-of view, and story-telling gimmicks that rely too much on manipulating the audience, and you have a book that you’ll want to forget. Fortunately, you can save yourself the trouble by reading this review and not the book.