"The Neighbors Are Watching" (Crown, $23.99), by Debra Ginsberg: The secrets and lies of the residents of suburban Fuller Court are barely suppressible to begin with, and when a pregnant teenager named Diana shows up unexpectedly on her biological father's doorstep, she sets in motion all sorts of discord and chaos.
Hostilities peak when a wildfire, whipped into cataclysmic proportions by Santa Ana winds, forces an evacuation of the neighborhood, during which time Diana disappears, leaving her newborn baby behind.
This is revealed in the first few pages of Debra Ginsberg's new novel, "The Neighbors Are Watching," in a series of posts on the San Diego Fire Blog and their attending comments. Though the Internet isn't a tangible presence in the rest of the story, the opening works, both in that it casts a foreboding shadow over all other interactions in the novel and in its mirroring of individual resentments and bigotry that bubble under the surface of each character, even as they band together to find Diana.
Setting a story amid the dark side of suburbia, where everyone sticks their nose into everyone else's business, is nothing new, and various characters and story lines play out more or less predictably.
There's Kevin, the sullen, disaffected stoner son of conservative parents, one of whom is hiding an unsavory past. There's Jessalyn, the former reality TV show contestant who trades everything on her looks and desirability. And there's Joe, Diana's father, who never told his wife, Allison, that he'd fathered a child and now finds himself unable to get any sort of foothold on his once comfortably ordinary life.
Allison, in turn, takes Diana's sudden existence extremely and understandably hard. But then she isn't able to move past it; she overspends her surplus of sympathy and turns it into vodka-soaked self-pitying that tries Joe's patience, and ours.
None of these characters is very appealing or sympathetic — save for Sam, the housewife who left her husband for a woman, lost her son in the process, and is now struggling to keep her new relationship alive and strong. But they're all believable and, more important, engaging.
Ginsberg's writing is undeniably compelling, attracting that part of us that draws closer and closer to a horrible car accident, fearing the horrors we may find and yet needing to sate our curiosity.
(This version CORRECTS name of publisher to Crown.)