In The Neighbors Are Watching, Debra Ginsberg explores the delicate equilibriums of her characters’ lives behind the closed doors of their southern California neighborhood. The arrival of Diana, a pregnant teenager—and her subsequent disappearance—causes a frisson of energy to surge around the cul-de-sac. Interpersonal drama plays out against the backdrop of the California wildfires of 2007, an experience the author lived through herself.
The novel opens with a series of entries on an Internet message board following Diana’s disappearance, intriguingly setting the scene. From this outside glimpse of the neighborhood, Ginsberg turns back the clock and refocuses on her characters’ homes, where they watch Diana’s initial arrival.
Ginsberg’s story features five families, all of whom are affected by Diana’s entrance. Sam, who left her manicured suburban life—and husband—for Gloria, with whom she had an affair, can’t look at Diana without seeing a younger version of herself. For Allison, the wife of Diana’s biological father Joe, Diana’s arrival raises painful questions about her own relationship. Why had her husband allowed his former girlfriend to have Diana 17 years ago, but twisted her arm into getting an abortion while they were dating? The question nearly unravels her life—and her marriage. For Joe, a likable restaurant manager who has always had a knack for talking his way out of anything, Diana’s arrival and his wife’s undoing throws his world into a tailspin. And for Kevin, a disaffected youth who is the son of two ultra-conservatives (suitably named Dick and Dot), Diana’s arrival marks the beginning of a friendship, and the possibility of teenage love. Dick and Dot initially seem like overdrawn caricatures—both to this reader and to others in the novel—but soon they too are pleasingly human, flawed but relatable. The households teeter and totter, and readers will wonder how all the miniature worlds could possibly right themselves again.
Ginsberg deftly and believably draws her characters, who often misunderstand each other in fascinating and realistic ways. Her protagonist’s disappearance (and seeming desertion of her new infant) is a cause that rallies the neighborhood into action, and a series of satisfying twists bring the plot to a close. An immensely interesting novel, The Neighbors Are Watching just may cause readers to look more closely out of their own windows.