8 Novels About Dealing With Difficult Neighbors
Chris Cander, author of "A Gracious Neighbor," recommend stories about the drama of living in a neighborhood
What, if any, responsibility do we have to the people who live near us? Especially the ones we don’t particularly like, those who may have insulted or ignored us, trapped us in kitchens and cocktail parties with overreaching inquiries, indulged their petty prejudices at our expense, or implicated us in their close-knit cruelties and the psychopathologies of their everyday lives. Does proximity imply duty? After all, we generally don’t get to choose our neighbors any more than we get to select our family members. This is the question I wanted to explore in my novel A Gracious Neighbor.
The protagonist of A Gracious Neighbor, Martha Hale, is an affable wife and mother who lives in an affluent neighborhood of well-tended lawns and high expectations. Her clumsiness at penetrating the social circles around her has made her lonely, and so she’s thrilled when the glamorous Minnie Foster, a former high school classmate, moves in next door. However, Martha’s determination to pick up where they left off becomes a preoccupation with Minnie’s life, and she undertakes a series of well-intentioned but perilous measures to save her would-be friend’s reputation.
Fred Rogers, the beloved sweater-wearing icon of the 1968-2001 children’s television series “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” once said, “Imagine what our real neighborhoods would be like if each of us offered, as a matter of course, just one kind word to another person.” It’s a beautiful idea that I hope everyone adopts. But because most of us don’t live in such utopias, I think we’re fascinated by stories that remind us of home: where people often behave badly, where the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side of the fence, and where we don’t really know what’s going on behind our neighbors’ doors.
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
Set in the author’s real hometown of Shaker Heights, Cleveland, a carefully planned idyll, Little Fires Everywhere explores how a seemingly well-behaved “progressive” community reacts when a bohemian outsider, Mia Warren, and her daughter, Pearl, move into a rental house owned by the Richardsons. The latter are the quintessential Shaker Heights family. Elena and her husband have money, successful careers, a lovely home, and four children they assume will grow up to lead equally flourishing lives. The youngest, Izzy, however, is hell-bent on destruction. “Rules existed for a reason: if you followed them, you would succeed; if you didn’t, you might burn the world to the ground.” When the Richardsons’ and Warrens’ lives begin to intertwine, they also begin to self-destruct. Thanks to Izzy, the Richardsons’ house is literally burning down as the story opens, but there are plenty of other themes catching fire throughout the novel: racism, motherhood, wealth disparity, and friendship. The narrative itself is a slow burn, but the characters are complex, well-developed, flawed, and realistic.
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
I devoured this gorgeous book the week it was released, and had such a desperate hangover when it ended that I couldn’t read anything else for a fortnight afterward. Along with their new wives, Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson, two rookie Bronx cops, move into neighboring homes in a nearby town. Two of their children, Kate Gleeson and Peter Stanhope, born the same year, become best friends, and then more than that. But on the cusp of teenagerhood, a tragic event forces the Stanhopes out of their home, and Kate and Peter out of each other’s lives. The narrative follows the two as they reunite, struggling to put the traumatic past behind them as they lean into the headwinds of the future.
Not only is Keane’s writing sublime, but she never succumbs to sentimentality. Her characters are flawed, nuanced, and relatable even at their worst. She invites us to look carefully around the low-lit corners of these families’ homes and hearts, never passing judgment, but allowing us to decide for ourselves who to root for. In the end, I rooted for them all.
Good Neighbors by Sarah Langan
I was hooked on page one by the description of the aptly-named Wilde family: Gertie, a living Barbie doll with uncool “mom-cleavage,” hot-tempered Arlo who smokes Parliaments on the front porch, and their weird kids, Julia and Larry, who cuss and fart in public. When they move into a fixer-upper on uptight, tight-knit Maple Street in Long Island, their presence begins to erode their neighbors’ fragile illusions of safety and peace in a newly unstable world. A sinkhole—both actual and metaphorical—opens up in a park during a neighborhood party that the Wildes weren’t invited to but attended anyway. This “hungry” cavern consumes a child, and with her goes the civility that had been a feature of the enclave. Suddenly, the street is awash in malicious, infectious gossip that turns neighbors against one another and propels the narrative through mob mentality, social pressure, climate crises, and the perils of American suburbia to its dramatic conclusion.
This literary thriller was riveting and unsettling in the best possible way, and I love that, like me, Langan chose to set her story in her own neighborhood. To do so is risky, because some residents of any real community would be offended by anything less than a best places to live ranking in a magazine. (One outraged reviewer said, “I am shocked by the heinous treatment this author gave to the town.”) Sorry, neighbors: writing about a profoundly familiar place is a great way to excavate the deepest truths about the imaginary people who live there.
The Ice Storm by Rick Moody
Set during a single 24-hour period in another picture-perfect and very real neighborhood, this time New Canaan, Connecticut. The area was highly desirable during the ’70s; a modernist hotspot made famous by the so-called Harvard Five, a group of architects who moved there in the 1940s and filled it with sleek, Bauhaus-inspired houses. The town is still one of the most affluent communities in the U.S. (it’s currently ranked 88th in the nation with the highest median family income). But as is true in so many wealthy areas, the happiness of its population seems inversely proportional to its opulence, and the characters in The Ice Storm are no exception.
It’s a stultifying Thanksgiving weekend in 1973, the Watergate scandal is on the color set every night, the Vietnam war is winding down, and the sexual revolution is heating up. The Hood family is simmering in individual pots of self-loathing and self-destruction: depressed dad Ben is having an affair with a neighbor, mom Elena is emotionally withdrawn, daughter Wendy has discovered the power and pleasure of drugs and sex, and son Paul hides from the world within the pages of his comic books. By the time the titular ice storm arrives, the characters are well into their familial meltdown. The writing is beautiful (if excessive), and Moody’s nihilistic view of a certain slice of American suburban life, people’s obsession with sex and status, and the breakdown of the nuclear family (and relationships in general) is searing.
The Husbands by Chandler Baker
A recent study on housework trends from the University of Michigan (the Panel Study on Income Dynamics) revealed that husbands create an extra seven hours per week of housework for wives, but wives save husbands from approximately an hour of the same. Not so in the too-good-to-be-true neighborhood, Dynasty Ranch, where the women wear the pants and their husbands wash and iron them.
Nora Spangler lives in Austin, Texas with her husband, Hayden and young daughter, Liv. Pregnant and exhausted, Nora struggles to balance her successful legal career and possible offer of partnership with domestic duties, time with her child, friendships, and whatever self-care she can squeeze in. When she and Hayden decide to look for a larger home, they discover the exclusive and intriguing Dynasty Ranch. Just how did these wives train their husbands to be so helpful and submissive? That’s the fun part. If you’ve read Ira Levin’s 1972 satire, The Stepford Wives, you’ll have an idea. The reality that informs this feminist and domestic thriller is sobering but Baker uses it to great effect imagining what it would take for women like her overworked and exhausted protagonist, Nora, to actually have it all.
The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena
New parents Anne and Marco are invited to a small dinner party at the home of their next-door neighbors, Cynthia and Graham—but their baby is not. When their sitter cancels at the last minute, Marco persuades Anne to take the baby monitor and leave six-month-old Cora asleep in her crib, promising to check on her regularly. When they arrive home at one in the morning, the door is open and the infant is missing. Although the identity of the kidnapper isn’t well concealed, this is a compelling whodunit, and a perfect exemplar of the adage that nobody really knows what goes on behind closed doors.
A Good Neighborhood by Therese Anne Fowler
It isn’t just the setting of this book that makes it relevant to a book list about neighborhoods; it’s that the neighborhood itself—using a first-person plural POV—is the narrator. Like the disembodied group of boys narrating Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, this collective voice lends a strong, reliable perspective to a story in which one set of neighbors is pitted against another in a battle over a dying tree and a secret romance, racism and class differences.
Widowed Valerie Alston-Holt, a professor of ecology, and her bi-racial, musically-gifted son, Xavier, are living a tentative happily-ever-after in picturesque Oak Knoll, an allegedly close-knit district in North Carolina, until Brad Whitman and his wife, Julia, and their two daughters, Juniper and Lily, move in next door. Brad fells all the oak trees on his lot to build an oversized house and swimming pool, damaging the root system of the majestic, beloved tree in Valerie’s yard. Things get even more complicated when Xavier and Juniper fall in love. This novel beautifully explores the challenges of living side-by-side when, for so many reasons, neighbors can’t see eye-to-eye.
The Room of Lost Things by Stella Duffy
Set in Loughborough Junction in South London, The Room of Lost Things tells the story of an aging dry cleaner named Robert and Akeel, the ambitious young man who plans to take over the business from him, as they spend a year working together to ensure the handover goes smoothly. There’s a large cast of secondary characters, most of them Robert’s customers, representing the diverse and chaotic character of London. The narrative flows gently and poetically along, a moving paean to both the setting and to the countless people that we come into contact with on a regular basis but don’t really know.