Rory and Bruno live in the Venetian Vista gated community, in a luxurious house. They’ve spent the best part of twenty years together, since college. The Good Neighbor begins when the empty house next door gets occupants. In a coincidence (or not, as the writer wrote it that way, I suppose) the neighbours turn out to know them from college. Meg and Austin are a Baptist family with two sons – Noah and Josh. Within a few minutes, the kids have shown the adults up in the tolerance stakes, as they don’t bat an eyelid over Rory and Bruno’s obviously intimate relationship.
Predictably, Rory and Austin become close as they are the designated ‘house husbands’, cooped in over a humid autumn, with only their pools and pills for company. I was convinced that the story would end with Rory and Austin moving in together, and Meg and Bruno setting up house, as a lot is made of Bruno’s previous marriage to a woman. Although I won’t give the ending away, I will say that this doesn’t happen.
It’s quite a short book, which was handy as I’m still catching up from Pessl, but it does manage to fit a lot in. Quinn obviously enjoys writing, as it was easy to read and easy to distinguish between character voices, for the most part. The parallels between the heterosexual and homosexual couple are apparent throughout – the wage earner holds the power, both stay at home partners feel undermined, emasculated at times. Although it felt a bit forced, it was interesting that sex, as in gender, was not important.
Despite being interesting, I also felt that the concept of gay fiction is a bit strange. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but society today is comfortable with gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transsexual relationships in a way that it wasn’t twenty years ago. My opinion is that, if it’s not that big a deal, why have a section of literature dedicated to how it’s not that different to heterosexual relationships? I suppose there are people who do not agree with lifestyles away from their norm (i.e., married at 18, 2.4 children etc) but I’d like to think that they wouldn’t read this, in which case, Quinn is preaching to the choir.
There’re quite a few references to the fact that Rory is Catholic, and the other couple are Baptist. There’s an irritating conversation where Meg lectures Rory on what Christians believe, where Rory internally comments that Catholics are Christians. I found this irritating because if you believed that your faith was the correct one, a gentle correction is going to enlighten the speaker and defend your position. Instead, he grumbles about it to himself, which is surely not the Christian thing to do. It feels a little bit like the author’s waving a sign around which reads “See!! Gay people are just like ordinary people!!”.
On the other hand, there are very few ‘mainstream’ novels that I am aware of which feature a gay couple as main characters. If I was gay, I’d like that there were novels (Jay Quinn has written a dozen of these) which concerned my lifestyle, from walking the dog to having sex. I’m no prude, but the intimate moments were unexpectedly graphic. It was obvious that there may be ‘scenes of a sexual nature’, simply because another of Quinn’s books that I picked up in the library came under the ‘gay erotic fiction’ label.
Aside from this, much of the novel revolves around Austin’s voyeurism of Rory and Bruno, as he watches them in their back garden. Again, perhaps I’m being naïve but I didn’t really see why it was necessary to strip each other in the pool, in full view of everyone. Intimacy isn’t displayed with half drowned blow jobs, in my opinion.
I know I’m in danger of sounding slightly Daily Mail, and I am finding it hard to articulate what I thought of this book without coming across as homophobic or falsely tolerant. I enjoyed the writing, and the characters were largely rendered successfully. However, no-one got away with occasional broad strokes about their personalities, from their sexual preferences to their alcohol tolerance.
To summarise, the main themes of the book – love, loyalty and independence – could all easily have been covered with any combination of couples, and often is. It was refreshing to see the main couple being gay, but in 2009, I felt guilty for being surprised. Although there were irritating affectations (such as Bruno telling Meg that nine year old Josh is gay, as ‘they’ can spot ‘em young) there were incidences of charming writing, which kept me reading.