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Monday, December 06, 2010

Ginsberg Novel Asks, "Do You Know Your Neighbors?"

(Image from Indiebound)

If you're one of the millions who tune in every week to see what new drama's unfolding on Wisteria Lane, you might be interested in Debra Ginsberg's The Neighbors Are Watching. Just like Desperate Housewives, the novel's filled with ordinary people hiding disastrous secrets behind tidy homes and manicured lawns. Their San Diego suburb may appear disappointingly run-of-the-mill, but as Bree, Gabby, Susan, Lynette and the other housewives could tell them, things are not always what they seem, secrets rarely remain such, and skeletons have a funny way of escaping their closets. Of course, none of these things happen quietly or privately, not on tv or in a book, anyway - they explode publicly, violently, blowing everything in their pathways to smithereens. Which, as we all know, makes for some serious entertainment.

The Neighbors Are Watching begins with the arrival of 17-year-old Diana Jones in a quiet Carmel Valley neighborhood. Not only is she pregnant, but her shabby appearance and cafe au lait skin make it perfectly clear that she does not belong on Fuller Court. Still, it only takes one glance for restaurant manager Joe Montana to recognize her as his daughter. He's never been the fatherly type (as his wife, Allison knows all too well), yet he feels compelled to help Diana, who's on the outs with her mother. The girl's presence unsettles Allison, whose anger at Joe and the girl who's allowed to have what Allison never did, turns her into a glassy-eyed lush. None of the Montanas' neighbors know quite what to think of Diana, whose sharp-tongued, unapologetic attitude makes them all uncomfortable. It's like she knows every single one of their carefully-guarded secrets. And maybe she does.

When a wildfire threatens Carmel Valley, forcing the residents of Fuller Court to evacuate, Diana disappears. Leaving her newborn behind. Some, like "equal opportunity bigot" (140) Dick Werner say good riddance to bad rubbish, but others on the street are worried sick about the young mother. Diana may not have been a perfect angel, but she wouldn't abandon her own child, would she? Did she go willingly or did someone drag her away kicking and screaming? The teenager knew hardly anyone in town - could someone on their street have hurt her? Her own father, perhaps? Or the woman who resented Diana's presence in her home? Or maybe the rebellious boy who loved her so fiercely he wouldn't have been able to take her rejection? Or the racist father who didn't want her darkening the neighborhood let alone his son? Everybody on the street has something to hide, but does anyone know what really happened to Diana Jones?

As character-driven as this novel is, it was actually the mystery I found most intriguing. Although I felt no great love for Diana, I still wanted to know what happened to her, and who or what was responsible for her disappearance. That's what kept me turning pages, not the characters, since I found the lot of them unlikable. Sympathetic, maybe, but repugnant nonetheless. Because the cast members are all so unhappy, the book gets awfully depressing. For those reasons, I don't know if I can say I enjoyed the novel. It's definitely a compelling pageturner, if not an overwhelmingly appealing one. Maybe it needs a little Housewives humor to warm it up? Overall, though, it's an interesting, fast-paced mystery that will have you looking askance at all those neighbors you once considered normal.

(Readalikes: Reminds me a bit of Faithful Place by Tana French)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for language, sexual content and depictions of illegal drug use

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Neighbors Are Watching from the generous folks at Crown Publishing (a division of Random House). Thank you!

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