Monday, November 8, 2021

Book Review: We Are Not Like Them

By Jami Denison

Perhaps it’s due to her reporter background, but author Jo Piazza seems to have her fingers on the pulse of contemporary American women better than nearly any other author today. In books like Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win (review), Fitness Junkie (review), and Love Rehab (review), Piazza creates strong, relatable heroines who feel completely grounded even while their plots feel ripped from the headlines. Now Piazza has teamed up with editor Christine Pride in creating We Are Not Like Them, a heartbreaking story of the lifelong friendship between a White policeman’s wife and a Black news anchor that’s torn apart by a police shooting. 

Jen and Riley have been friends since daycare—the daycare run by Riley’s grandmother, where Jen’s teenage mother dropped her during her overnight bartending shifts. Now a TV news reporter, Riley has returned home to Philadelphia and reunited with Jen, who’s pregnant with her first child after years of IVF. Married to a cop, Jen didn’t have the money for college and ended up waitressing. Riley, close to her family, is more interested in her career than children. Yet bound by childhood, the women have tried to remain close. But when Jen’s husband Kevin shoots an unarmed Black teenager, the ties are frayed. Jen, while destroyed at Kevin’s actions, is also completely on her husband’s side, and refuses to see the shooting as part of the pattern of systemic racism. Riley, gutted by her friend’s insistence that she can’t be racist because her best friend is Black, is also torn between her sympathy for the dead boy’s mother and her desire to get the story and move up the ranks at her TV station. When Jen begs Riley to interview Kevin, to put “his side of the story” out there, things become even more complicated.

We Are Not Like Them feels so timely, I had to remind myself several times that the story was not real. And yet, all the details of the shooting—the alley location, the sound-obscuring headphones, the boy reaching into his back pocket for his phone—are so specific, it’s impossible for the reader to distance herself. The book opens with the shooting, with the boy Justin’s final thoughts—which are so universal 14-year-old boy ruminations that my mind immediately went to my son at that age. The scene might actually be too impactful; after reading it, I was more concerned with his mother than with the two old friends who hadn’t lost a son. 

The book is written from both first-person perspectives, and Piazza (who is White) tells readers in a foreword that she and Pride (who is Black) were careful not to assign perspectives based on race. Yet although Pride is an experienced editor, Piazza is an accomplished writer, and her voice seems to dominate the narrative. Riley is the more fleshed-out character, and with Piazza’s own background in journalism, that’s not surprising. From Riley’s viewpoint, readers feel firsthand the daily impact of the microaggressions that come with being Black. She wears an emotional flack jacket to handle the casual racism that starts from an early age and even exists in her own family. (Her brother only dates White women because “they’re prettier.”) Her friendship with Jen is only a small part of Riley’s story, as her career, the implications of the shooting, her grandmother’s health, her regrets over a lost love, and her relationship with her parents also factor in. Jen, on the other hand, feels more stereotypical blue collar White girl. A die-hard Eagles fan, she married Kevin because he was a stable guy with his own place and a good job. A blonde who waitressed at Olive Garden, she quit her job as a dentist’s receptionist to get ready for the baby. Her mother-in-law is a devout Catholic with racist tendencies who waits on her husband and sons. Jen’s pregnancy through IVF was the only thing that did not seem stereotypical, and that point seemed more of a plot contrivance to tie Jen closer to Riley. (Riley lent her some money for the procedure.) For all these shortcomings, though, Jen sincerely loves and admires Riley, and she tries mightily to overcome her own racist tendencies. For instance, she notes that she and Riley played on the same teams and took the same classes, but Riley got scholarships and she didn’t. At the same time, she acknowledges that Riley worked harder. 

Everything in the book feels so real—the social media attacks on Jen and Riley; the code of honor that his fellow cops want Kevin to honor; the racial missteps and misunderstandings—that it’s ironic that what felt the least authentic to me was the friendship between the two women. In the reader’s note, Piazza says that she and Pride were inspired to write the story by the statistic that over 90 percent of people did not have a close friend of a different race. And yet, to me, the Jen-Riley relationship felt contrived. Yes, they grew up together. But Riley grew up in a close, loving, intact family with two parents who pushed her to achieve the dream she’d had since she was a little girl. And Jen, born to a teenager who became a neglectful mom that refused to help her daughter get college financial aid, couldn’t see the world beyond her own place in it. As adults, Riley seemed so much smarter than Jen that it just wasn’t believable that they still considered themselves best friends, especially since Riley was also close with a high-powered Jamaican woman she met in college.

But this is not another version of Firefly Lane; We Are Not Like Them could be described as an adult version of Angie Thomas’s YA classic, The Hate U Give. As such, the rationalization of the friendship isn’t as important as the issues surrounding it. In today’s environment, where red states are passing laws forbidding schools from talking about racism, it’s more important than ever that women—especially White women—read books like these.

Thanks to Atria for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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