by Joanne Serling
Joanna Serling's ice-pick of a debut novel, Good Neighbors, centers of a group of four young suburban families, odious, over-moneyed pan-shallow creatures who have almost nothing holding their friendships together other than their shared but unspoken appreciation of how mutually insufferable they are. “We were modest. We were moneyed. We were all of us self-made and the most successful siblings of our respective families,” Nicole Westerhof, the book's narrator, tells us early on. “We knew that we would never have been friends if we didn't live on the same street at the same time with kids the same age … We knew that we knew almost nothing about each other that we didn't want known.”
It doesn't take long for that note of foreboding to play out in Serling's minimal but web-taut story structure. Narrator Nicole is, mercifully, the most bearable of her group; the least bearable, the one all the others find borderline repellant, is Paige Edwards, an entirely self-absorbed blurter of nonsense who announces at the novel's beginning that she and her handsome husband Gene are adopting a four-year-old girl from Russia. Paige, discussing little Winnie like she would a Persian rug she'd bought on discount, assures her listeners that the girl's only reported defect is a lazy eye.
Even before Paige and Gene have returned with their new family member, Nicole is beginning to feel a an almost maternal fascination with the whole process that quickly deepens into a strange fixation once she meets Winnie. The whole group gradually notices signs that would be very troubling in a less repulsively clueless group, particularly Paige's growing stridency on every topic concerning her new daughter. She sends a note around to all the adults in the group, warning them, among other things, not to refer to Winnie's “real parents,” insisting they use instead “biological parents” (“We are the real parents”). Something about the whole process oddly gives Nicole hope:
This was good, I told myself. Instructive. Not the tone, which was bossy and supercilious. But I liked the content. The content was obviously well researched, if not by Paige, then by some adoption professional she was trying to mimic. There were other rules, too. About not saying that Winnie was “given away.” About not mentioning the orphanage. Or her lazy eye. But none of these were as interesting to me as the stuff about the real parents. I liked it. It fulfilled my own idea about what was possible: how a person could be saved with love and will and a little bit of money.
The Edwards family has considerably more than “a little bit of money,” but it doesn't help; in the course of a few deftly incisive chapters, it becomes obvious that something has gone seriously wrong. Paige, formerly the neighborhood's omnipresent busybody, stops leaving the house, and Serling adroitly increases the tension as readers are periodically reminded that the book's most likable character is also the book's most vulnerable character: the more the entire book revolves around Winnie, the less likely anything in the book seems able to save her.
Good Neighbors is first-rate suburbs-fiction. It's also an elegant but savage indictment: these people don't know each other, they don't know their own children, they don't know themselves. They gaffe and talk and quip, and they have money – and when one unwitting stressor is added to their world, fractures appear immediately. It's a steely writing performance, the kind that will leave readers watchful for another novel from this author.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.