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Good Neighbors


Good Neighbors

Already being compared to classics like THE CRUCIBLE and more recent bestsellers like Celeste Ng’s LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, Sarah Langan’s GOOD NEIGHBORS is a propulsive, endlessly creepy dissection of American suburbia.

On Long Island’s Maple Street, everyone knows everyone. As children (affectionately deemed the “Rat Pack”) play on front lawns, and as parents bond over their kids' silly stories, beer, movie nights and their work, they are all under the illusion that because they are good people, nothing can ever hurt them. But the recent arrival of a new family has rocked Maple Street's careful balance. The Wildes --- Arlo, a former rock star; Gertie, his pregnant beauty queen wife; and their two children, Julia and Larry --- do not reek of the same privileged upbringing of their neighbors, nor do they keep an especially tidy or trendy home. Quite simply, they are normal, and that can be very dangerous in a neighborhood where “keeping up with the Joneses” (or, in this case, the Schroeders) is not just a saying, but a way of life.

When we meet the Wildes, they have just been very obviously left uninvited to a neighborhood block party. Choosing to believe the best of their neighbors, especially Gertie’s best friend, perfect Rhea Schroeder, they put on a brave face and head to the party, encouraging their children to join in the fun. But when they arrive, something is clearly amiss: no one will make eye contact with them, Rhea is aloof and cold, and even the kids have trouble joining their friends. In the blink of an eye, all 72 citizens of Maple Street regroup and play their roles as good neighbors, but an eerie chill hangs over the festivities. And then the sinkhole opens.

"Langan keeps the tension simmering at all times, and her descriptions of these 'good' neighbors juxtaposed with her unveiling of their very bad actions is as addictive as it is cringeworthy."

Because GOOD NEIGHBORS is set in the year 2027, global warming and lack of funding have taken a toll on the ecosystem and the economy, and sinkholes are not uncommon. But to see one this big on Long Island is as shocking as it is devastating, and though there is only one fatality --- a German shepherd --- the residents are understandably stressed. Once again choosing to see the silver lining, Gertie hopes that the catastrophe will bond her and her neighbors together as they try to rebuild against a common enemy. Instead, families start to leave, forcing the remaining neighbors closer together as the sinkhole exposes deep fractures, setting everyone on edge and fueling dangerous prejudices.

No one is more unmoored than the Schroeders’ daughter, Shelly. Fiery at best and downright destructive at worst, Shelly is a natural-born leader at 13. Under her mother’s not-so-subtle orders, she has begun a campaign against her former best friend, Julia, and the frantic energy of the sinkhole only bolsters her case. Struggling under her mother’s controlling thumb and desperate for an outlet, she launches a full-scale attack on Julia while all the children are outside playing one day. But when Shelly suffers a wardrobe malfunction during her rant, she flips the script, accusing Arlo of sexual assault. None of the children take Shelly seriously, knowing that her behavior, especially of late, has been particularly erratic. But when a tragic accident befalls Shelly, and everyone begins recounting the events of the day, the young girl’s accusation comes to light and takes on a life of its own.

What follows is a dangerous game of telephone, with mothers and fathers harassing their kids into their own retellings of Shelly’s allegations. Eager to impress their parents, each child embellishes the tale until the common agreement is that Arlo has hurt not only Shelly, but his own children and even a few local boys as well. With the sinkhole continuing to wreak havoc on their lives, the citizens of Maple Street start to crack under the pressure, turning the Wildes into scapegoats in a fight that has become desperate for a resolution, be it by legal intervention, public shaming or death. And the Maple Street court of public opinion is only too happy to oblige.

In a combination of prose, newspaper articles, biographies, maps and lists, Sarah Langan reports on the Maple Street murders from 15 years in the future, laying out the main players, the pressure cooker events of the summer and their legacy, but keeping the victims a surprise until the end. Her gaze is keen and cutthroat as she unpacks the failings of American suburbia and the ways that it creates class wars, escalates childhood traumas and inspires fear. GOOD NEIGHBORS starts out as near satire, but under Langan’s skillful hands, it becomes much darker, much more astounding and completely heartbreaking. She carefully juggles complex characters with dark secrets and spellbinding suspense to turn a wild and crazy premise into an allegory full of searing commentary on suburbia (or is it disturbia?) and the fight for the moral high ground that takes place when tragedy occurs.

Though the ending was definitely worth it, I had trouble getting into the book initially. The setting in 2027 is a bit jarring and does not seem to add much to the story as there are no futuristic elements beyond the toll on the ecosystem. The main drama does not occur until nearly 100 pages in, which means that you’ll have to stick with a lot of community-exploring groundwork before getting to the good stuff. That said, Langan keeps the tension simmering at all times, and her descriptions of these “good” neighbors juxtaposed with her unveiling of their very bad actions is as addictive as it is cringeworthy.

Perfect for readers of HOUSE ON FIRE, COBBLE HILL and the aforementioned LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, GOOD NEIGHBORS is a natural choice for book clubs and is sure to make Sarah Langan a household name among readers.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 5, 2021

Good Neighbors
by Sarah Langan