Book Review: THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR by Yewande Omotoso

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.


9781250124579

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.

Friday Bookbag, 12.8.17

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

Side note: I’ve been reading so many review-worthy books lately that I’m considering adding a second scheduled slot for reviews like I’m already doing with Monday Reads–I’m thinking on Thursdays or even Saturdays–or maybe I’ll drop extra reviews in randomly…I’m not sure yet!

Musings aside, here are two books I picked up this week that I’m dying to read.


9781250124579

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

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Loving thy neighbor is easier said than done.

Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors. One is black, the other white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed and are living with questions, disappointments, and secrets that have brought them shame. And each has something that the woman next door deeply desires.

Sworn enemies, the two share a hedge and a deliberate hostility, which they maintain with a zeal that belies their age. But, one day, an unexpected event forces Hortensia and Marion together. As the physical barriers between them collapse, their bickering softens into conversation. But are these sparks of connection enough to ignite a friendship, or is it too late to expect these women to change?

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: This has been my year of making a conscious effort to read more books by women, and especially books about women who are different from myself. I’m 23, not in my 80s as these two characters are, and I’ll be interested to see if I find this book relatable anyway…even if I don’t, it promises to be funny and sweet, something I need this week.

9781250109163

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

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Freshly disengaged from her fiancé and feeling that life has not turned out quite the way she planned, thirty-year-old Ruth quits her job, leaves town, and arrives at her parents’ home to find family life more complicated than she’d realized. Her father, a prominent history professor, is losing his memory. Her mother, like Ruth, is smarting from a betrayal. But over the course of a year, the comedy in Ruth’s situation takes hold, gently transforming her grief.

Source: the library

Why I’m excited: I love books about family, which this is, and I also love NPR’s 2017 book concierge, where this book was featured. Like The Woman Next Door, it sounds like there’s a humorous component. Also, the cover design is pretty, and the spine was eye-catching on the library shelf. (What can I say? Sometimes I do judge by a cover.)


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and  blog posts!