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One on One: New novel set in Raleigh addresses race and family

By D.G. Martin

Do black lives matter in a good, almost all-white neighborhood in Raleigh?

The black lives in this neighborhood are two of the main characters in Raleigh author Therese Anne Fowler’s latest novel, “A Good Neighborhood.”

Fowler became a literary hot property following her bestselling “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” in 2013 and “A Well-Behaved Woman” about Alva Smith Vanderbilt in 2018.

The new book opens in the middle of a not unusual neighborhood conflict brought on by the tearing down of an older home that had sat on a wooded lot in Raleigh’s fictional Oakdale neighborhood. The old house and trees have been replaced by a mansion-sized house and swimming pool. The old ambience is gone. That would be bad enough, but the pool construction destroyed the roots of a giant beloved tree next door.

The owner of the doomed tree and adjoining lot is Valerie Alston-Holt, a college professor who is a well-liked fixture in Oakdale.

Valerie’s new neighbor, Brad Whitman, is a self-confident, self-made man who has built a successful heating and air conditioning business. His personal appearances on TV to promote his business have made him popular and recognizable in Raleigh. He is used to getting his way.

Brad’s wife’s daughter, Juniper, is 17. When she was 14 she and Brad participated in a “Purity Ball.” As Brad explained to a neighbor, “Well, the ball culminates a ceremony wherein the dads promise to protect and support the girls, and the girls promise to stay virgins until after the dads hand them off at their wedding.”

When we first meet Juniper, she is swimming in the new pool.

So, what does all this have to do with Black Lives Matter?

First, Valerie is black.

Second, she and her late husband, who was white, had a son Xavier, who is now a high school senior.

Xavier is near perfect. Smart. Hard working. Courteous and considerate. Popular. A musician good enough to win a scholarship to a fine conservatory in San Francisco.

He is popular with his contemporaries of both races. He cherishes the memory of his dead white father and considers himself to be both white and black.

But outside of his family and friends, he is just another young black male.

If you have already guessed that the book’s story line will revolve around a romance between Xavier and Juniper, you have it right.

And if you guess that Brad’s devotion to his stepdaughter and his latent racism might lead to a tragedy exacerbated by Xavier’s skin color, you already understand the Black Lives Matter connection to the story.

Fowler’s novel has appeared at a time when the Oprah-selected and bestselling novel “American Dirt” has been roundly criticized for having been written by an author who had not actually experienced the culture she so vividly described.

In short, the question for Fowler’s book is whether a white author can successfully write about black characters such as Valerie and Xavier?

Critics have different opinions about “A Good Neighborhood.”

In The New York Times, reviewer Kiley Reid said no. She wrote, “Much like Uncle Tom, Xavier, the perfect biracial teenager, is presented as a nonthreatening fantasy for the book’s white audience.”

On the other hand, Washington Post reviewer Jung Yun writes, “What Fowler has executed is a book in which the black characters are thoughtfully rendered and essential to the story being told. Valerie and Xavier’s perspectives enrich and complicate a larger narrative about prejudice and how it can infiltrate even the most neighborly and seemingly open-minded of communities.”

I agree with Jung Yun. Fowler deserves admiration and praise for carefully developing her characters and telling a disturbing story that makes her readers confront Black Lives Matter.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sundays at 3:30 p.m. and Tuesdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesdays at 8 p.m. and other times.

FOR MORE COLUMNS AND LETTERS TO THE EDITOR, CHECK OUT OUR OPINION SECTION HERE.

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