The New Neighbor
I’ve said it before this year and undoubtedly will whisper it again and again as I pluck another volume off of my ever-growing stack of new, must-read and want-to-read books: so many books, so little time. THE NEW NEIGHBOR almost got past me as a result, then nearly got set aside in favor of something that might make the heart thump and the pulse race a bit faster and earlier in the proceedings. But author Leah Stewart was handling the foundational construction of her book so well that I couldn’t really set it aside in favor of something with sex, explosions and karate from page one. So I stuck with it and am the richer for it.
Part of the reason for staying is the setting. Most of the story occurs in and around Sewanee, Tennessee, one of the most beautiful places you are likely to lay eyes upon. Actually, it’s a nearby mountain --- or “the mountain” in the story --- that has star status as both setting and maybe a character as well. The story advances from the alternating viewpoints of two of the mountain’s residents: they being the first person narrative of Margaret Riley and the third person observations of Jennifer Young. Margaret is a long-time resident of the mountain, nine decades old and ensconced in a routine that is serving her well in the twilight of her life.
"THE NEW NEIGHBOR is a terrific novel that makes a couple of demands in the early going, but more than adequately rewards the reader’s patience and time."
As THE NEW NEIGHBOR opens, Margaret discovers that the house across the way, vacant for quite some time, is now occupied by Jennifer and her four-year-old son, Milo. Jennifer is inclined to keep to herself for reasons that we don’t quite understand at first, though she drops little pieces of hints here and there. The big mystery, and what intrigues Margaret, is why Jennifer would come to Sewanee to live for no apparent reason. As we learn --- from Jennifer oddly enough --- Sewanee is a place that people either stay in or move away from; it usually does not attract new blood. Margaret, at least initially, is the aggressor, first by finding out the name of her new and somewhat reclusive neighbor (she does this in an old-fashioned, snoopy way) and proceeding from there.
The two women eventually and almost inevitably meet and gradually come to know each other, even as Jennifer takes pains to reveal as little as possible. This, of course, makes Margaret all the more curious. The social and conversational dance that they do around the twin elephants in the room is an extremely interesting plot device in Stewart’s very capable hands as she plays and toys with nuances and observations. An unanswered question by one woman in one chapter is provided (but not shared) by the other in the next. The reader is the winner but is still left in the dark.
And it’s not just Jennifer who has something to hide. Everyone has secrets, and someone who has lived to be 90 years old and still live independently more than certainly has her fair share of them, not to mention the will to protect them...and, of course, to cause a bit of meddlesome and maybe even malicious mischief along the way.
THE NEW NEIGHBOR is a terrific novel that makes a couple of demands in the early going, but more than adequately rewards the reader’s patience and time. It is also one of those rare books that almost begs to be read twice: once for the enjoyment and a second time to appreciate its construction.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on June 29, 2016