I read four of Beth Kephart's books in 2010. I also read her blog faithfully, and so I knew that her novel Dangerous Neighbors was both a bit of a departure for her and a long-brewing labor of love. She says in the book's Endnotes:
"During the course of my research for Flow: the Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River I began to dream, novelistically, of this Centennial year (1876). About twin sisters and a boy who rescued animals. About a mother so preoccupied with the future that she could not see, or protect, the present. About a river with a mind of her own."
Dangerous Neighbors includes all of the elements from Kephart's dream. Having made an impression with several beautifully-written, deeply-felt novels about contemporary teens for the YA market, this is the author's first work of historical fiction. However, even with the change in time period and the use of third-person narration (also a first in Kephart's fiction), this is clearly a Beth Kephart work - beautifully written and deeply felt. I only wish there were more of it.
The preoccupied mother is there - but barely, and by definition, that makes absolute sense. The boy who rescues animals is there, but we don't really get to know him as well as we'd like. The focus of the novel is the twin sisters, Katherine and Anna, whose relationship was becoming ever more complicated before it was rocked by tragedy not long before the summer of the Centennial.
I have a close relationship with my sister, but we are not twins. I've read some fascinating things about the twin bond, though, and Kephart's depiction of the sisters in Dangerous Neighbors seems to reflect them. It's one thing when your best friend seems to be blowing off your company for a guy. But when your best friend is your twin - who has always felt like a part of you - and the guy is someone wholly unsuitable to your family's place in society, it cuts deep. And when she expects you to be her ally in conducting this relationship out of view of your parents, and can't grasp why you aren't as happy as she is...it's not all that hard to understand why Katherine and Anna's relationship has become frayed. Katherine feels lost, and like she's losing Anna. And when she truly does lose her sister, she can only see one way to find her - and herself - again. I felt for Katherine, and longed to see her find another way.
Dangerous Neighbors is a story of grief, guilt, and growth that goes by all too quickly, and that's my only real complaint about it. I like spending time in the worlds that Beth Kephart creates in her fiction; I didn't get enough of it here. Having said that, though, this short novel has no shortage of emotional impact, and I think that with time, it will grow on me.