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We Are Not Like Them, a timely and emotional new novel by coauthors Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, begins with a case of mistaken identity as an inexperienced white police officer guns down a Black teenager on the streets of Philadelphia. The story explores a city reeling from another senseless death through the eyes of two lifelong friends whose bonds are tested by the tragedy.
Fiction blurs with reality in this novel, perhaps most acutely for us Philadelphians aware of the city’s grim statistics of gun violence. With the city’s 500th homicide of 2021 recorded just days ago and unjustified murders disproportionately targeting Black and brown people splashed on every news outlet, this story is sadly familiar.
Authors Pride and Piazza set the tone in the gripping prologue. As he lies wounded on the street, 14-year-old Justin Dwyer ruminates about the sensation of being shot. It is not what he expected. How sad is it that he had imagined this scenario already, something Black children learn to fear? He wishes the cops—both white—had known there was no gun; he was reaching for his cell phone that now lies shattered on the pavement. He worries about how his mother will cope.
An outpouring of grief ensues in the community. More than one family suffers the consequences of a trigger pulled too soon, with recriminations, threats, and a sense of inevitability: “The fervor and outrage is familiar, a well-oiled machine,” one character observes.
The incident also forces a reckoning between Jen and Riley, two women who have been lifelong friends. Even though their lives have taken different paths, they remain besties. Jen, who is white, is married to Kevin, a police officer involved in the shooting. After a long stretch of infertility, she is finally pregnant. Riley, a Black woman, is an ambitious local broadcast journalist, hungry to scoop the next big story in her quest for a promotion to the position of news anchor.
In alternating narratives, Jen and Riley react to the events over which they had no control. Jen, fiercely loyal to her husband, is nonetheless horrified at what he has done and is terrified about their future. Riley, cognizant of tragedies of racism in her family’s history, struggles to maintain her journalistic objectivity while forging a relationship with the victim’s mother.
The protagonists’ friendship teeters on the precipice. Neither Jen nor Riley fully grasps each other’s pain. But the novel’s believability suffers at some points. As a reader, I was curious about why the friends, intimate as they are, never seem to have discussed the impact of race on their relationship before. I also question why Riley’s boss does not pull her off the story when he discovers her friendship with Jen, a significant conflict of interest.
An honest reflection
The authors—Pride is Black and Piazza white—do a fine job of crystallizing the perspectives of their characters through a racial lens. Words can be interpreted so differently. When Jen responds to a pushy reporter that she can’t be racist because her best friend is Black, she thinks that gives her credibility. Riley, however, bristles at Jen’s remark, which she considers clueless and insensitive.
Philly folks will appreciate the many local references: Fishtown, Glenn “Hurricane” Schwartz, Temple University, Strawberry Mansion, a baby onesie emblazoned with “Dallas Sucks,” and so many more. This Philadelphia story is not the Grace Kelly version, but an honest reflection of our city today. A gripping read from start to finish, the novel can prompt the uncomfortable conversations we all need to have about race, the essence of friendship, and the criminal justice system.
What, When, Where
We Are Not Like Them. By Christine Pride and Jo Piazza. New York: Atria Books, October 5, 2021. 336 pages; hardcover; $24.84. Get it on bookshop.org.
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