A Good Neighborhood
by Theresa Anne Fowler


West Maui Book Club Discussion Questions

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Any page numbers refer to iPad edition.


1. The story begins with these auspicious lines: ”We begin our story here, in the minutes before the small event that will change everything.” “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly about who’s to blame. “For the record: we never wanted to take sides.” By the end of the story, do you take a side? On whom do you place blame? And…on what big or small event do you base your decision? (pg 3)

2. This is a love story warped by minds around revenge and greed, tangled in legal action, and steeped in cultural differences. How did everything go so wrong for both sides?

3. How do you define a good neighborhood? How did this story support or deny that definition for you? Juniper Whitman thinks “good” means mainly other people like themselves, ie white, privileged, very concerned with appearances (her mom, Julia or perceptions (Brad). (pg 54)

4. All reference to being “a good neighbor” is credited to Valerie Holt-Alston. In what way is she a good neighbor? In what way isn’t she?

5. Discuss Valerie’s conviction for suing Brad Whitman as not pursuing retribution but justice. (pg 85) Or her attorney Wilson Everly’s invocation that “It’s important to make fools like this feel the consequences of their actions materially.” (pg 86)

6. Xavier asks, ”Why doesn’t half white equal white the way half black equals black?” (pg 28). Or, when he states, “Black men (and if you, biracial boy, aren’t totally white, you are for every intent and purpose black) were more likely to be wrongly convicted and to serve longer sentences than whites.” (pg 272)

7. How did the narrator’s “third eye” injections move the story for you?

8. Communication runs the gamut from cellphone texting and the Internet to tiny handwritten notes tucked behind a wristwatch (why does Xavier wear one? He’s a teenager with a cellphone) and social media that created media attention but in the end was too late to make a difference.

9. Discuss coercion by parents, police, and lawyers, particularly as it pertains to Juniper, but also Xavier.

10. Were you surprised by Xavier’s eventual decision? Had you wished for something different? Metaphorically asking, if this had been a “good neighborhood,” how would events been different?

11. The story presents a lot of bias: “white men in particular—were so accustomed to their authority and privilege that they perceived it as a right.” (pg 23)

12. “Black musicians always had a few girls on a string…the same way black athletes did—everybody knew that.” (270) Near the story’s end appear more auspicious lines: “We’ll start here.” “Without a call to action, change rarely occurs.” “Start here, please, in communion with one another despite our differences, recognizing that without start there is no end.

From the Author’s website at thereseannefowler.wordpress.com

1. Early in the novel, Juniper considers: “What, she wondered, made a neighborhood good? To her parents, good seemed to mean there were mainly other people like themselves.” What do you think makes a “good” neighborhood, and is Oak Knoll one of them? As new houses are built in older, existing neighborhoods, do you think that changes the feel and culture of a place?

2. Do you view the Whitman family as genuinely Christian, or is religion primarily a tool for Julia and Brad? Can both things be true at the same time?

3. For Valerie, “tending her plants was her therapy.” In what aspects of the natural world does Valerie take comfort in? What does Valerie’s dying oak tree come to represent for her? With that in mind, do you think her lawsuit was reasonable?

4. Race can be a sensitive topic, and it features prominently in A Good Neighborhood. How comfortable do you feel talking about race, and do you think this novel changed your perspective on the role that race plays in the United States?

5. Of her new neighbors, Valerie acknowledges: “I basically judged them from the second the chain saws started, and that bothers me. I try to give everyone a chance, or how can I complain when people pre-judge me?” What assumptions do these two families make about each other? Which of these assumptions do you consider to be racist or classist?

6. Almost immediately, we are told, “Later this summer when the funeral takes place, the media will speculate boldly on who’s to blame. They’ll challenge attendees to say on camera whose side they’re on.” How does knowing that a tragedy lies ahead affect your reading experience?

7. Who should shoulder the blame for the chain of aggression between these neighbors? What actions could have been taken by either family to tame the tension?

8. The Greek chorus makes the reader a part of the story, and in some ways complicit in the action. How did that affect your reading? Who did you think the “We” was in the book’s narration?

9. Of music, Xavier says: “Classical was the one that made him feel beautiful, and he needed that feeling to help him get through all the emotional noise in the world.” What kind of “emotional noise” does Xavier face, and did this phrase resonate with you? How does music shape Xavier’s sense of self?

10. “As our resident English professor would remind us, place, especially in stories of the South, is as much a character as any human, and inseparable from—in this case even necessary to—the plot.” The novel takes place in North Carolina. How does this setting inform the story? How do the ghosts of history impact the characters in the book?

11. “How many nights in the past few years had Valerie waited up for her son, praying that he and his friends not be stopped by the police?” In what ways are both Juniper and Xavier taught to protect themselves? How do each of them handle the socio-cultural limitations that are put on their bodies?

12. Consider Juniper’s early life, when Julia was down on her luck. How do those experiences shape what is expected of Juniper, and the choices she makes (including purity vows, employment options)? What kinds of messages does she receive about the kind of woman she should become?

13. “As far as Juniper could see, Julia was all-in for all of it. Between Blakely and New Hope, she was making certain her daughters were groomed into angels-on-earth.” In what ways did you view Julia as Brad’s victim or his accomplice?

14. Did you recognize your adolescent self in Xavier and Juniper? How is the love experienced by these teens different from more mature versions?

15. “She wanted her daughter to value herself more than she, Julia, had done as a teen, wanted her to see chastity as the thing that made her the boss of her fate.” What did you think about this notion that a woman’s “purity” is her “super power”?

16. The book club in the novel recently read and discussed Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. How does that classic novel echo or amplify the action in A Good Neighborhood?

17. What scenes with Brad did you find especially upsetting to read? How does Brad justify his desires and urges? Were there moments where you felt sympathetic to him, or understood where he was coming from?

18. Did you think Juniper was manipulated by her family and the police into reporting the “crime”? In what ways is her truth distorted by those in authority?

19. “If you are a black person in the United States, you live each day with the knowledge that this scene or one very much like it may be in your future. You needn’t have done anything illegal or have broken any rule.” Did this statement resonate with you? What other injustices does the author explore in this book? Did you find you further explored your own opinions on these hot button issues, or develop different empathies along the way?

20. How does the media coverage and news cycle contribute to Xavier’s fate? What are your thoughts on the novel’s conclusion and Xavier’s choice? Do you think that justice was ultimately served?

Questions compiled by: Elaine Gallant
West Maui Book Club
July, 2020