Good Neighbors

A Novel


By Joanne Serling

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A searing portrait of suburbia, friendship, and family strained by a devotion to false appearances.

In an idyllic suburb, four young families quickly form a neighborhood clique, their friendships based on little more than the ages of their children and a shared sense of camaraderie. When one of the couples, Paige and Gene Edwards, adopt a four-year-old girl from Russia, the group’s loyalty and morality is soon called into question. Are the Edwards unkind to their new daughter? Or is she a difficult child with hidden destructive tendencies?

As the seams of the group friendship slowly unravel, neighbor Nicole Westerhof finds herself drawn further into the life of the adopted girl, forcing Nicole to re-examine the deceptive nature of her own family ties, and her complicity in the events unfolding around her.



PAIGE INSISTED ON BUYING Indian headdresses. Faux leather bands. Intricate beading. Dyed and colored feathers. They were hideous. Impractical. Quite possibly racist. Still, I defended her.

“It’s cultural,” I told Lorraine when she called to complain about them.

“How are presents at Thanksgiving cultural?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a Christian thing. Like a stocking stuffer?”

Silence from Lorraine, who was Jewish and didn’t know from stocking stuffers. Aware that I didn’t, either.

“Who cares?” I asked, gesturing toward Lorraine on the phone, even though I knew she couldn’t see me. Lorraine no doubt pacing her office, her team of admins pretending not to hear her through the glass-walled partition. Not that it mattered. Lorraine, a trim, athletic blonde with the kind of freckled face and easy demeanor that made everyone like her, no matter how much she gossiped.

“It’s rude, for starters,” Lorraine said. “Now we all have to chip in forty bucks for a stupid gift that our kids don’t want and don’t need. It’s a neighborhood leftovers party in a cabin in a park. The whole idea was not to spend money!”

“They could put on a skit while we’re eating,” I offered, walking toward my front hall mirror to examine myself, my dirty blond ringlets mashed against the side of my face, my green eyes staring back at me skeptically.

“It’s just so Paige! Who buys a group gift without asking first?”

“Let’s just forget it and next year we’ll make sure she doesn’t do anything without permission,” I suggested, idly fluffing my hair with my fingers before walking away from the mirror and heading up to my second-floor office.

“That’s what you said last year!” Lorraine reminded me. “And Paige brought the ‘washable’ window paint. Remember the lost security deposit?”

It was true. I had said that. She had done that. But what did it matter, really? Paige Edwards was unpredictable. Lorraine Weinberger was bossy. And Nela! Nela Guzman-Veniero could barely acknowledge us, claiming to be too exhausted from her job as a corporate lawyer in Boston, happy to leave the socializing to her husband, Drew, who owned a baseball card store on Main Street. He was more one of us than she was. Sort of. Not really. But we didn’t care. We cared but we’d made a trade-off—to accept everyone as they were in exchange for the comfort of the group’s camaraderie. That’s what we were now. A group. A thing. A neighborhood clique. The kind of friends who made up holidays to celebrate together, like this one, Leftovers Day, a senseless ritual that made us feel like we belonged to one another. Lorraine needed to drop the headdress complaint, not because Paige was right, but because being right was beside the point.

“Just be overly solicitous when she presents the gift, then dump it in the trash as soon as you get home!” I said, turning on my computer. The whir making me feel productive even though I’d quit my corporate job four years earlier; my desk cluttered with bills and paperwork instead of writing assignments.

Lorraine laughed. Lorraine said, “I just don’t understand her!”

I agreed. I commiserated. I said, “I know what you mean!” Even though I didn’t. Not really. Paige wasn’t a mystery to me. I understood Paige in my own peculiar and hard-to-explain way: her dramatic flair and self-deprecating humor, her silk scarves and handsomely furnished Tudor. Hers was a life that functioned perfectly, as long as people didn’t know her well. Or didn’t question her. I didn’t question her. I didn’t look too closely. Her fights with other people were ceaseless and comical. The rookie cop who pulled her over for speeding. The naive mother who accidentally cut Paige off in the car wash driveway. Paige always eager to tell us about these incidents. Always eager to explain how awful the other party had been. And in the telling I’d shake my head. I’d murmur support. I’d pretend to understand her side of the story. But I always knew the other side, too. Could always feel the crevasse where the rest of the information lay.

In my ear, Lorraine was saying, “We didn’t even tell her to buy a group gift this year. Did you tell Paige to buy a group gift?”

“Well, I didn’t say she couldn’t buy a group gift,” I offered, hoping this would perhaps make Paige’s transgression all right, forgivable, at least to Lorraine. It was already forgivable to me in the way that all acts that weren’t deadly—and even some that were—could be made forgivable by me.

A sigh from Lorraine, not content yet. Lorraine telling me again about Paige’s rudeness. Her presumption!

I stood up from my desk and peered out my office window toward Paige’s herringboned Tudor, enchanted, as always, by the home’s grandeur: its handsome brickwork and stylish gardens. The house in the middle of our cul-de-sac circle; its kidney-shaped pool a frequent scene of our impromptu get-togethers. All of us eager to enjoy the soothing rush of the waterfall, the luxury of the whirlpool. Even though I imagined the gardens were barren now, the pool covered and puddled with water.

Lorraine was still talking. Phones ringing in the background. Lorraine a corporate recruiter who spent her entire day on the telephone. In another moment, she was saying she had to go, but not before telling me how excited she was for our leftovers party.

“It’ll be great!” I agreed, even though I knew the actual event would be loud, the cabin uncomfortable, the kids no doubt tripping over tree roots and other hidden obstacles. The women shouting at the kids to slow down, be careful, to not punch or kick one another, while the guys stood in the corner drinking from the makeshift bar, their halfhearted attempts to organize kickball or Duck, Duck, Goose never materializing into anything other than reminiscences about their own days as children. How much freer they’d been. And also more self-sufficient. All of it a salad of half-truths and carefully massaged memories, the ages of their independence no doubt older than they remembered, their parents more neglectful than they cared to admit to themselves. Not that it mattered. None of it mattered. Their memories weren’t the point. The party wasn’t even the point. The point was the group. Our neighborhood. The romantic and somewhat unlikely notion that we’d all wandered into this storybook setting and created something magical for ourselves. Something fulfilling and fun and full of future promise. Which never failed to surprise me. How I’d become the kind of grown-up I could never have imagined as a child. Someone happy.


WHEN THE APPOINTED DAY came and the women were appropriately attired to chase the kids and still look like they belonged at a party—expensive boots, quilted jackets, soft fuzzy sweaters over T-shirts and leggings; when the wine had been uncorked and too many appetizers consumed; when the kids had been fed and were busy with a hired babysitter playing charades, we finally sat down for dinner: sticky cranberry relish, leftover corn casserole, dark turkey meat that had been sliced and made ready for sandwiches. The dinner half consumed when Paige announced her big news by tapping on a plastic wineglass with a knife, blushing, then fidgeting, then bursting out, “We’re adopting.”

What had been a din of talking over talking suddenly collapsed into a moment of silence, of paying attention. Paige had our attention. She was adopting. Her husband, Gene, looked on solemnly, if a man that handsome could ever look solemn. His sandy hair, his hazel eyes, even his square jaw all conspired to make him look more like a playboy than like somebody’s middle-aged husband and father.

“Well, you know we’ve been waiting, right?” Paige asked sweetly. Innocently. As if the adoption weren’t a loaded topic.

Some of us knew. I knew. I’d known Paige the longest, except for Lorraine, who’d met Gene at some sort of fundraising dinner.

I glanced at Nela. Nela and Drew lived in a sprawling ranch house right next door to the Edwardses. She had to know. But Nela’s face betrayed nothing, her emotional scale somewhere between bemused and uninterested at all times, the result of our failure to be either brown-skinned or her cousins. (“In Puerto Rico you don’t get involved with your neighbors!” she was always quick to point out, looking at Drew, her suburban-born husband, as if it were his fault she’d fallen into this mess.)

In a moment, Lorraine lifted a plastic wineglass to toast the Edwardses, causing a commotion of cheering and clapping.

At the far end of the table, my husband, Jay, caught my eye, his slim, narrow body pitched forward, his face wary. Was he or wasn’t he supposed to know about the adoption? Gene had never once mentioned it to him directly.

I shrugged. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t a secret. Paige had been saying it for years. How much she wanted a second child. How she was dying for a ton of kids! Which I doubted. How much Paige truly loved children. Paige wore her motherhood like some sort of old-fashioned coat, belted and done up, proper and attractive from a certain distance. Her son, Cameron, always dressed in new clothes, told to behave, sit up straight, use his manners. Paige always smiling frantically, a thin veneer that rarely hid her irritation. Her desire to control the situation always shimmering just below the surface.

“I know, world’s oldest mother, right?” Paige was saying at the other end of the table when the toasts had died down, her sleek silver hair curled delicately around her earlobes; Paige prematurely gray, which did nothing to detract from her considerable beauty. Or how chic she was.

Lorraine said, “Give me a break, you’re barely forty.”

Lorraine was the oldest living mother! She’d had her second child three years ago at forty-three. A surprise she hadn’t necessarily wanted, which she made no bones about admitting. Lorraine more interested in tennis and socializing than in the day-to-day business of parenting. Especially now that she was divorced. Evan gone with barely a ripple.

“I had honestly given up,” Paige was saying at the other end of the table, her mood suddenly shifting as she dabbed her eyes with an orange paper napkin. “When the agency called over the summer, I thought it was to take us off the list because we’ve been waiting so long.”

We nodded expectantly. I wondered, was there an expiration date?

“But then they offered us a preschooler,” Paige added shyly. “She’s just turned four. We met her in August.”

She had?

“So this could be better than a baby with unknown issues,” Paige said, looking around the long lodge table for agreement that no one was able to give her. Not until we knew which way she had chosen.

“I mean, Cameron’s already seven. He’d rather have a sister he can play with. And she has no issues besides a lazy eye. So we said yes. Yes!”

The women nodding more vigorously, our voices rising over one another to reassure Paige of the wisdom of her decision. We were all at least forty. Of course a preschooler was better! The men silent, swirling their wineglasses or chugging from beer bottles, embarrassed, perhaps, to be acknowledging Paige’s reproductive failures. Or maybe they were merely weighing the pros and cons of an adoption, whether they could go through with it themselves. I could go through with it. I had wanted to do it instead of having my own children. A fact which had shocked Jay and was never something he could take seriously. The risk of bad genetics. Of taking on an unknown story. Which was, of course, the whole point of it to me. To create a different kind of family than the one I’d grown up with.

Next to me, Gene was loudly proclaiming, “We’re flying to Moscow in January. Two thousand bucks per ticket!” Gene shaking his oversize head, running his hands through his thick sandy hair. “Not even for first!” he complained.

Now, here was a topic the men could warm to: the cost of things. The recession three years behind us, but still casting its sickly gray pall on us.

“Inflation!” Jay asserted, suddenly coming to life at the other end of the table. Economic doom among Jay’s favorite topics.

“When I was a kid, my dad took three kids to Europe on a salesman’s salary!” Gene boomed, shaking his head like he couldn’t imagine how his dad had managed it, even though we all knew that salesman was a euphemism; hadn’t Gene’s dad run a biotech company?

“That’s when the stewardesses were still stewardesses!” Drew said, raising his eyebrows suggestively while the other men all nodded appreciatively, Nela calling them animals. In another moment, Lorraine rose from behind her long bench seat to hug Paige and Nela came around from the other side of the table to join them. I was shocked. Paige was, too. You could tell by the way she opened her mouth in an O when Nela reached out to her, then closed it quickly and leaned forward to clasp Nela’s back. Paige’s face not just happy but thankful, too, as if by hugging her, Nela was granting Paige something she’d never dreamed of getting: Nela’s blessing.

I watched Nela as she asked for particulars about dates and medical exams, about whether Cameron would go with them, how they would manage it all. Something had shifted in Nela’s delicate face, some sort of acknowledgment or acceptance, as if Paige was not who Nela had suspected she was but, instead, someone better. Someone to be hugged and even celebrated. Or maybe this was just what I was thinking, relieved that someone else was thinking it, too, that maybe this would make it true.

I rose and gave Paige a hug, her back bony beneath her white cotton blouse, ideas about the adoption flitting through my head like images in a silent movie. The girl adorable in a fur-trimmed snowsuit, even though I doubted a Russian orphan wore anything with real fur. The girl rosy-cheeked and fair, waiting at the orphanage. I wondered if she fully understood what was about to happen. I wondered if she was excited. I wondered if she had any way of imagining the perfect idyll to which she was being transported. The Edwardses’ giant Tudor with its coffered ceilings and stained glass windows. The long hallways filled with silver picture frames and fine Oriental carpets. All of it elegant and lovely and no doubt beyond the imaginings of a child who had grown up with rough blankets, industrial beds, metal cribs. I could barely wait for Paige and Gene to go to Russia and return again, to be part of their daring and wonderful rescue.


SUITCASES WERE PACKED. A passport acquired for Cameron. Timers attached to light fixtures. All of this relayed to us in a long group e-mail from Paige, who wanted us to keep an eye on the house while she was gone. This despite Yazmin’s daily dispatch there for dusting and checking up on things. Which was so Paige: overly privileged and overly waited on. Who needed daily dusting while they were away in Russia? Why couldn’t her nanny enjoy a vacation? But still. I dreamed of her voyage. Longed for her return. Tried to imagine the moment when she would become the girl’s mother.

For three long weeks the house sat silent, vacant, like an expectant pause in a soon-to-begin drama. And then, all at once, it was Thursday. The day of the Edwardses’ return. The plane descending into Logan within a few hours. The light already fading into a purplish dusk at five o’clock as Lorraine and I converged at Paige’s house with our plates of homemade food and our group gift. We’d agreed on two Burberry scarves, one for each child. Lorraine had suggested it, and I’d eagerly gone to the mall for them. Certain that Burberry was exactly what Paige would want, if she’d been able to ask us for it.

Nela totally disagreed. She was actually miffed by our suggestion. Didn’t we know that Burberry was overpriced and not that attractive? Didn’t we know that Burberry was the ultimate in phony tradition? Of course I knew this. I wore flea market necklaces. Bangles from Mexico. But phony was what Paige went for. Couldn’t Nela see that? She couldn’t. She declined to go in on it with us.

Now Lorraine and I were at the Edwardses’ front door, leaving our separate driveways to converge in our overcoats and winter boots, standing on the Edwardses’ slate stoop in the February cold, ringing the bell, waiting as we were greeted by Yazmin, the nanny Lorraine had found for Paige when her own search had turned up two qualified candidates. Even though I’d counseled Lorraine against getting involved in Paige’s business, nervous about how Paige treated the women who worked for her. Which I suspected was poorly. Several quitting suddenly, complaining to my housekeeper about Paige’s condescending behavior. But Yazmin had stayed. She’d been there a year now, maybe two. Which just went to show you. How maybe Paige wasn’t so bad. I greeted Yazmin, handed her my coat, which she insisted on hanging up for me. Yazmin overly solicitous, calling us Miss Nicole and Miss Lorraine, neither of us bothering to insist on just our first names as Yazmin offered us coffee and freshly made cake.

We declined the cake even as Yazmin brewed us the coffee. We eagerly accepted it in Paige’s good coffee cups, the ones with mint-green leaves curling around the thin porcelain lip, the cups nothing like my own coffee mugs, with funny sayings or bank promotions. Paige’s house always filling me with a warm and satisfied feeling. The marble more gleaming than my own. The inlaid cabinets more ornate, the daily china of better quality. A feeling of luxury and entitlement sweeping over me completely when I was there, happy to let Yazmin wait on me and bring me coffee in a way I would never allow Idallia to do in my own house.

When we’d finished our coffee and our pleasantries, we arranged our Burberry boxes in the center of the island, one for Cameron, one for Winifred. The new daughter apparently named after Gene’s grandmother. Which was ridiculous. Naming a Russian girl anything like Winifred. Naming any girl Winifred! Which I suspected we both thought but neither of us said. Happy to hear from Yazmin that the Edwardses planned on calling her Winnie. Both of us eager to hear what else Yazmin knew about the Edwardses’ trip and imminent arrival. Lorraine peppering Yazmin with questions as was her customary manner: Had she heard from them today? What time exactly would their plane land? Had they said everything was going smoothly? Was the girl healthy and happy? Was Cameron? And to everything Yazmin smiled vaguely and said, “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” in her heavily accented English, as if by knowing something about the Edwardses she would risk revealing how she really felt about them, too. Or maybe it was only I who sensed this: a shrinking into herself whenever the idea of Paige and Gene entered the room, a sudden pretending to not understand what we were asking.

In the hallway we heard the stomping of feet, a voice calling, coming closer. It was Nela. We’d left the door ajar, invited her to join us. Nela’s short, sleek hair plastered with snowflakes, an armful of white lilies in her arms, their scent dense and sweet, the bouquet gorgeous and exactly the right thing for the occasion. Which suddenly made me ashamed of my Burberry gift and plate of cold chicken.

“From a family event,” Nela said as I complimented her on the arrangement, not wanting to suggest, I supposed, that she went out and bought them. Not wanting to suggest that she was in any way like us. Which she was quick to show us as she turned to greet Yazmin in Spanish. Shedding her fleece to reveal a tight Harvard T-shirt, black leggings; Nela no more than five feet, but her figure curvy and perfect.

Yazmin smiling toward Nela, speaking rapidly in Spanish, reaching up to a high cupboard to get down a vase from the spot where Paige kept them. Nela helping her arrange the lilies, fussing with the stems while Lorraine and I sat blankly at the island, afraid to break into English and seem like we were speaking over them. Lorraine checking her gold watch, then getting up to open the fridge again, to wonder if the dinner would be visible as soon as the Edwardses opened it and whether we should tape instructions to the refrigerator door. Shrugging my shoulders, not wanting to interrupt Yazmin to ask for the tape or the pen. Nela finally joining us at the island, allowing us to drop the petty concern about the note. Nela announcing that she had wanted to throw a shower for Paige.

She had?

“But she said no, she would be too tired,” Nela added, looking from one to the other of us for some sort of response we couldn’t give her. Nela had never once had us to her house for a party or even dinner. Why was she suddenly being so solicitous of Paige?

“I just thought it was the right thing to do. To honor her decision to take this on,” Nela continued, softly, as if she was already disappointed and sad about it.

“That was really nice,” I said, trying to be encouraging. Not sure exactly what Paige was taking on that the rest of us hadn’t already taken on—namely, having children and raising them.

“Do you think she’s embarrassed?” Nela pressed, resting her chin on her thumb and forefinger and staring at me as if I had some sort of special insight. Which was flattering, even if I wasn’t going to give it to her.

“What’s Paige got to be embarrassed about?” I asked instead, curious to know what it was that Nela was thinking, her reasoning opaque and confusing to me in the best of circumstances.

“To have a daughter who isn’t hers. Who doesn’t even look like an Edwards,” Nela said, glancing from one to the other of us for some sort of response we weren’t prepared to give her. “Some Russians look Asian,” Nela added.

“She’s probably just nervous about who she would invite. I wouldn’t read too much into it,” Lorraine cautioned. Not reading into things was Lorraine’s specialty.

“I’m sure she addressed all her feelings at her group,” I offered. Eager to move off the race issue. Eager for there not to be a race issue!

“What group?” Lorraine practically shouted, causing Nela and me to look toward the sink to see if Yazmin had heard her. Yazmin’s back toward us, the water running over the coffeepot noisily.

“My friend saw Paige at her group a few times,” I said, lowering my voice. “She wasn’t supposed to tell me, but when I told her Paige was in Russia, she let it slip,” I offered, fiddling with my bangles, nervous that I’d betrayed a confidence.

“What group?” Lorraine pressed again, her mouth open in disbelief, her entire body poised on the verge of laughing. My breach of privacy of absolutely no concern to her. Lorraine wanted to know only one thing: had Paige been to some sort of group therapy? Paige Edwards the last person in the world any of us could imagine doing anything that required self-evaluation.

“It’s a group for couples to explore different paths,” I explained, looking from Lorraine to Nela to see if they were getting it. If my faux pas had been worth it. Lorraine’s mouth still open, revealing her perfectly square white teeth. Nela’s face blank, her pursed lips and high cheekbones giving her an air of superiority.

“Like whether you want to do an open adoption, or how you feel about adopting a foster child. It’s really tricky. My friend has all this shame around using a surrogate. It’s much more complex than I ever realized,” I said.

“So you’re telling me Paige Edwards went to group therapy?” Lorraine repeated, glossing over any family confusion, laughing lightly, causing Nela and me to laugh a little bit, too, even as we pointed to Yazmin’s back and put our fingers to our lips.

“So anyway, not having a shower. I don’t think it has anything to do with shame,” I continued. “I mean, she’s got to know women who adopted black babies and brown babies, even crack babies. And half those parents are in jail!”

Nela silently running her tongue under her top lip, no doubt steaming that I’d just associated brown babies and black babies with jail and with drug abuse.

“I’m just saying that adoption is pretty commonplace these days,” I said, looking directly at Nela, trying to cover up my insensitive comment. Which wasn’t all that insensitive in my book to begin with. Couldn’t we ever just be honest?

“Can we have a party at your house anyway?” Lorraine joked, not eager to linger over anything unpleasant.

Nela smiling reluctantly. Nela seemingly relieved that the shower wasn’t a reflection of how Paige felt about her new daughter’s ethnicity or appearance. Willing to forgive my insensitivity. Or at least to accept it in the spirit in which it was intended. Yazmin done with her coffeepot, turning to us, asking if we needed anything else. Not kicking us out but nervous, perhaps, that we might tell Paige if she didn’t do everything exactly right. All of us saying, “No thanks!” and “The coffee was delicious,” aware that it was time to leave. That we couldn’t have a party and gossip in Paige’s kitchen without her. Even though we’d been doing exactly that for the past half hour.

We said our good-byes and slipped out the front door, Nela rushing next door in some sort of hurry to get home while Lorraine and I stopped for a minute to acknowledge the moment and hug each other lightly. The moon casting its glow across the blackened trees and snowy lawns of our neighborhood.


THERE WERE SNOWBANKS STACKED against bushes, wind gusts sweeping the neighborhood. Paige hadn’t called. Hadn’t sent a thank-you for our presents, even though she’d been back for nearly a week, a fact that amused Drew, who called me to joke about it, but irritated Lorraine, who couldn’t see the humor in it. “Why wouldn’t you call?” Lorraine asked me. It was our fourth call of the day. Lorraine prone to constant calling once you’d answered and seemed willing to talk, which I was. The kids home for February break, Lorraine a welcome distraction.

“Maybe she’s jet-lagged,” I offered, certain this wasn’t the reason but aware that Lorraine needed one.

“So what, you’re jet-lagged. You pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, we’re back. We missed you. And by the way, the rice pilaf with Craisins was really good!’”


  • "I haven't been captivated by a story like this in so long. The tension, the complexity, the obsession over status; how one hopes to be seen by others versus how one fears one is seen...GOOD NEIGHBORS is a stunning, shocking, entertaining, and thought-provoking look at humanity. I want everyone to read this book."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Arial}Julia Fierro, author of The Gypsy Moth Mother and Cutting Teeth
  • "Riveting...GOOD NEIGHBORS exposes the dark underbelly of seemingly perfect families and friendships in this compulsively paced suburban thriller."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Arial}Bethany Ball, author of What To Do About The Solomons
  • "GOOD NEIGHBORS is a novel for everyone who's ever wondered what's really behind the smiling cohesion of other people's holiday cards and Facebook posts. Perhaps its highest achievement is to make us laugh, think, and tremble at the same time."—p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; text-align: center; font: 12.0px Arial}Pamela Erens, author of Eleven Hours, The Virgins and The Understory
  • "[An] ice-pick of a debut novel...elegant but savage...GOOD NEIGHBORS is first-rate suburbs-fiction. A steely writing performance, the kind that will leave readers watchful for another novel from this author."—Open Letters Review
  • "While many novels have tackled the subject of suburban secrets and unease, [GOOD NEIGHBORS] excels in particular at exploring the bonds among families. "—Publishers Weekly
  • "[Serling] writes with verve and frequent insight... A spicy stew of suburban discontent."—Kirkus

On Sale
Feb 6, 2018
Page Count
256 pages

Joanne Serling

About the Author

Joanne Serling’s fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in New Ohio Review and North American Review. She is a graduate of Cornell University and studied and taught fiction at The Writers Studio in New York City. She lives outside of New York with her husband and children and is at work on her second book.

Learn more about this author