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March 2, 2018

Book Notes - Joanne Serling "Good Neighbors"

Good Neighbors

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Joanne Serling's novel Good Neighbors is an impressive debut.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"While many novels have tackled the subject of suburban secrets and unease, [GOOD NEIGHBORS] excels in particular at exploring the bonds among families."

In her own words, here is Joanne Serling's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Good Neighbors:

[Note: These songs underscore a few of the emotional turning points and themes in my novel Good Neighbors. Some of the music was on constant rotation in my car as I was writing the book, others just floated up to me as the perfect aural accompaniment when I sat down to reflect on the story. Ultimately, this is a story about community, family, a search for truth, and a reflection on the difference between imperfect and truly bad parenting.]

"Piano Man," by Billy Joel
During the years I worked on Good Neighbors, it seemed like Billy Joel was always on the radio, and I took this coincidence as an omen, proof that the ordinary lives I was chronicling were as worthy of my attention as the characters Joel immortalized in his albums. In particular, "Piano Man," always struck a chord for me. I felt like Joel could have been singing about my own characters, the banality and the yearning of their lives now that they've reached middle age and life was not as they imagined it would be.

"What a Wonderful Life," by Louis Armstrong
Whenever this song comes on, I stop what I'm doing and listen for the line: "I see friends shaking hands, saying, ‘How do you do?' They're really saying, ‘I love you.'" I almost always well up with emotion when I hear it. I guess I'm a sucker for this kind of old-fashioned idea about community. Plus, I really do believe that people feel a special connection to the people they live in close contact with. Good Neighbors is very much about longing for this community, and the struggle to be authentic.

"Rise Above 1," by Reeve Carney featuring Bono and The Edge
This was on my iTunes playlist when I first started writing this book. Besides being a beautiful song, I always connected to the lyrics, which address an unknown "you" who is urging a moral and spiritual awakening—while the singer is simultaneously questioning whether such a thing is possible. "How much longer do I wait--and are there any real answers anyway?" This question was in many ways at the heart of my inquiry, and one that I gave to the narrator, Nicole. She's gone through life convinced that because morality can be gray, she can waffle in her actions and perceptions. But the story forces her to re-examine this idea more fully.

"Brave," by Sara Bareilles
There are number of classic lines in this song, but one of my favorites is, "Nothing's going to hurt you the way the words do/And they settle ‘neath your skin." The heart of the journey for Nicole is learning to speak up and figure out her truth.

"Three Little Birds," by Bob Marley, performed by Sean Paul and Ziggy Marley
At various points throughout the novel, the neighbors feel like they're losing each other, and then, through will or circumstance, they resurrect their dream that they're "like family" to one another, convincing themselves that "everything going to be all right." I can almost picture this song playing on the cruise they all take to Bermuda. This particular arrangement of the classic Bob Marley song is my favorite and the energy is contagious.

"Lost Ones," by Lauryn Hill
One of my characters, Nela Guzman-Veniero, is not like the other women in her neighborhood; she grew up poor, is very aware of the fact that she's brown (the others are white), and most importantly, isn't committed to the idea of the group the way the other women are. The quality of Lauryn Hill's voice, its texture and its toughness, seems to personify the essence of Nela for me and I smile when I hear the final lyric of this song, "You just lost one," being repeated over and over again.

"You Think I Don't Know (but I know)," by Charles Bradley
There's a lot of subterfuge in Good Neighbors, characters pretending to be close friends when they aren't, or pretending they think highly of one another when they actually suspect wrong doing. I'm always interested in this sort of double consciousness, the split between one's social self and the silent, more knowing self. Of course, as the stakes get higher, the tension between the two selves becomes difficult to reconcile. Bradley seemed to understand this at the most primal level.

"Yahweh," by U2
I've always believed that the lyrics of this song are as much about grace and resilience as they are about loss. I particularly love the line, "What no man can own, no man can take," and think it applies perfectly to the fate of the adopted girl, Winnie.

"Linger," by The Cranberries
Towards the end of the novel, it's clear that Nicole's relationship with her neighbor's adopted daughter is going to come to a close, no matter how much Nicole loves her and wants to save her. This song is packed with that kind of bittersweet regret, love and longing.

"Don't Need Permission," by Meg Mac
Liberation. Confidence. A willingness to take risks. These were all things I hoped Nicole would gain by the end of the book. She failed in many ways, but she was also, at the end, finally courageous and honest.

"Wave," by Beck
The book is ultimately a tragedy with no easy answers. Beck's music always speaks to a part of me that lies beyond words, in the realm of pure emotion.

Joanne Serling and Good Neighbors links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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