On the surface, The Woman Next Door is a novel about two elderly neighbors’ bitter rivalry, but its underlying premise is far more complex. Marion is a debt-ridden white woman living in a Cape Town suburb, whose casual racism is challenged when Hortensia, a wealthy and accomplished black woman, moves in next door. In the abstract, the novel deals beautifully with its hefty themes: Apartheid, reparations, racism, sexism, infidelity, and motherhood. Ultimately, though, it fails to unite these themes into one cohesive story, making the whole thing feel dull rather than incisive.
You can read my full review below.
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
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- publisher: Picador USA (imprint of Macmillan)
- publication date: February 7, 2017
- isbn: 978-1-250-12457-9
- length: 288 pages
Like many young people, I can be guilty of forgetting that my elders have had inner experiences as complex as my own–that conflicts around sex, family, schooling, and injustice are by no means unique to my generation. The Woman Next Door excels at dispelling this youthful error: its protagonists, suburban neighbors Marion and Hortensia, are complicated, riotous, sad, furious, empathetic, and gloriously unlikeable.
The novel’s plot, however, simply does not provide sufficient scaffolding for its larger-than-life heroines; in fact, so little happens over the course of its 288 pages that I’m at a loss as to how to summarize it. It’s as if the novel begins and ends with its character descriptions, which I’ll sketch out below, since I think they’re worth discussing in their entirety.
Hortensia James is an 80-something textile designer who always seems to be seething about something. She’s tired of the racist baggage that comes along with being the only black property owner in her insular Cape Town suburb, her white husband is dying after years of infidelity and distance, and she’s bitter over a land claim made on her property by a black family deeply harmed by Apartheid.
Marion Agostino is a white, Jewish/agnostic, 80-something ex-architect who desperately envies Hortensia for owning the first–and best–house Marion ever designed. Her awful husband died after racking up massive debt, her children all hate her, and the casual racism she’s cultivated for years is collapsing around her as South Africa recovers from Apartheid.
Despite Hortensia and Marion’s rich and layered backgrounds, however, the two women change little (if at all) over the course of the novel, making the effort feel pointless. It’s as if Omotoso imagined a snapshot in these characters’ lives–a gorgeous snapshot, to be sure–but then neglected to go any further backwards or forwards with it. Subplots flit in and out without satisfactory resolutions, personal revelations happen and then are seemingly reversed, and romantic interests are hinted at (and even explicitly stated) without a single “move” made by either party. It’s baffling.
Worst of all, the novel is told out of order, without clear markers of where, exactly, the reader is situated in Hortensia and Marion’s lives. I think that this was meant to show how much these women live in the past, but the effect is more like aimless drifting through misfortune after misfortune, nasty exchange after nasty exchange. (Hortensia is shockingly mean to everyone, and Marion is painted as a fairly pathetic social climber.)
I can’t shake the feeling that this novel would have been much stronger if it were told chronologically–but since Hortensia and Marion are relatively recent neighbors, the whole conceit would collapse, making it a different novel entirely.
This unmoored quality is even more of a shame because Omotoso’s prose style is simply delightful. She has a knack for artistic description–something that makes sense, given her background as an architect–and she also has a keen eye for the ways inequity plays out on the micro level. There’s an intense sense of loss that pervades these pages, especially in the ways that sexism and racism have robbed both of these women of the lives they should have had. In these moments, Omotoso’s gifts are clear, and The Woman Next Door is transcendent. Then the page is turned, and it falls flat all over again.
I can’t wholeheartedly recommend The Women Next Door, but I do hope Omotoso’s other books are slated for U.S. publication in the future. I’d love to see what she does with more dynamic material. 3/5 stars.
My copy of The Woman Next Door came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.