I honestly didn't know what to think about Peter Lovenheim's new nonfiction book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community on an American Street, One Sleepover at a Time. On the one hand, I thought it was a pretty neat little work of investigative and personal journalism (and I love that it came in at 238 pages, making it easily readable over a couple of nights); but on the other hand, I am too conflicted in my own feelings about neighbors, and what constitutes a community,* to wholeheartedly enjoy anything on the subject.
The impetus for Lovenheim's story came from an incident in his neighborhood in 2000, when a couple who lived just a few houses away from him died in a murder-suicide (the husband killed his wife and then himself). He was shocked to find how little he himself had known about them and their lives, and it got him thinking:
"What would it take, I wondered, to penetrate the barriers between us? I thought about childhood sleepovers and the insight I used to get from waking up inside a friend's home. More recently, my family and I had done summer house exchanges with families in Europe--they stayed in our house while we stayed in theirs. After living in these strangers' homes--waking in their beds, fixing meals in their kitchens, and walking in their neighborhoods--we had a strong sense of what their lives were about, something that would have been impossible to achieve just through conversation...But would my neighbors let me sleep over and write about their lives from inside their houses?" (pp. xvii-xviii.)
In fact, a bunch of his neighbors DID let him sleep over, and his descriptions of those experiences are the most interesting chapters in the book. I really did kind of enjoy it. Lovenheim's a skillful enough narrator, and the stories move right along--he gets to know an elderly neighbor, as well as a number of families, and another woman who is struggling with cancer. Along the way they do all become somewhat more involved in each other's lives--Lovenheim facilitates his older neighbor's desire to help individuals (rather than volunteering) by matching him up with the woman with cancer who needs help driving to some appointments, and he does become friends with many more people on his block.
I wouldn't say this book is a favorite, but it definitely was interesting (I felt the same way about the author's earlier title, Portrait of a Burger as a Young Calf, which I read a million years ago and enjoyed but didn't love--and which I didn't realize was done by the same author until I read his bio on this book). Check it out if you're interested in the continuing cultural debate about communities, neighborhoods, and social preferences.
*And when I say conflicted, I mean I want nothing to do, personally, with any of my actual neighbors. Ask Mr. CR: when taking walks, I have been known to cross the street to avoid talking to any of my neighbors who might actually be out in their front yards. I know the names of the people in the houses on either side of me, but other than that I only know other neighbors by nicknames like "the bossy old lady in the house behind us." I know this is not right, but I can't seem to help it. I try to be a good citizen otherwise; I volunteer time for other causes, I take care to keep my house and lawn neat, and I have called the cops before when noticing suspicious behavior at other houses on my street. But that doesn't change the fact that we once went to a movie specifically because we knew our nearest neighbor was throwing a party designed to help all the neighbors meet each other, just so we wouldn't have to go. Part of this is because I have made the choice, along with other members of my family, to stick near them and in my hometown, so I feel like THEY are my community. If you have moved away from or don't get along with your family, I can see how the need for neighbors might be a very real one indeed.