For twin sisters Katherine and Anna, life in Philadelphia is full of change and a continual quest for progress — especially in 1876. Progress for the 16-year-olds comes in the form of meeting new people . . . and forging new matches. Though identical, Anna exudes a confidence and beauty which her sister cannot imitate — a fact that becomes apparent after Anna’s sudden death.
Heartbroken and sieged by grief, Katherine turns away from the one person who could best relate to losing her beloved sister: Anna’s secret love, Bennett, a kind but poor baker’s son. Not approved as a suitor by the girls’ wealthy parents, Anna carries on her clandestine affair with Bennett and ropes cautious, play-by-the-rules Katherine into the ordeal. After her sister dies, Katherine is wading a sea of regret over not telling her parents the truth. Or someone the truth . . . before it was too late.
Beth Kephart’s Dangerous Neighbors is a slip of a novel that packs an emotional punch, and I don’t think I was ready for the raw glimpse into what it really means to be “my sister’s keeper.” At less than 200 pages, the novel feels like a Polaroid snapshot — and focuses exclusively on what has brought Katherine to a rooftop with no intention of returning to the ground the same way she came up.
From the start, Kephart’s lyrical language had me completely entangled in the twins’ story. As readers, we know Anna is gone from the very beginning — but the circumstances remain a mystery. I liked that the facts were revealed slowly, like the unfolding of paper, and that we’re introduced to each character in their own, sweet time.
I’ve yet to encounter another novel that so perfectly captures the painful, heartache-inducing way in which sisters must grapple with one another moving forward in their lives — and, in the process, pulling away from one another. With a sister three years my junior, I felt every word of what Kephart expressed about Katherine’s perception of Bennett was a “threat” to the safe, secure and happy private life she had with Anna. For the first time in their lives, Katherine was no longer the most important person in the world to her sister . . . and, when that happens, it breaks your heart. Of course you want your sister to be happy, and of course you want her to be loved. But that necessitates losing her a little, too. Katherine lost Anna in so many ways long before she was really gone — and that’s the saddest part of the story.
Dangerous Neighbors is a novel of change; of encroaching modernity; of growing up; of grief. It’s Katherine’s story of attempting to emerge from the darkest part of her life, but it’s Anna’s story, too — Anna’s vitality; her joy; but her cruelty, too. It’s a glimpse at life in Philadelphia just a little more than a decade after the end of the American Civil War, and a look at what it means to try and protect those we hold dear. Can we really be our sisters’ keepers, the ones on whom they rely? Is it fair to even ask that of a sibling — that we care more for someone else as much as, if not more, than we care for ourselves?
Katherine’s parents asked that of her — and more. And Anna, in turn, was selfish and often unkind. I worried endlessly for Katherine but felt less sympathy for Anna, though I know she was simply a 16-year-old girl lost in her first love. It was Katherine that suffered so Anna could be happy, and Katherine left to deal with the aftermath of her sister’s decisions. It was Katherine I wanted to befriend and help through the darkness, and I couldn’t help but feel angry with Anna for being . . . well, for being Anna.
After finishing the story, I closed it and sat back for a beat or two. I liked the book, yes, and found myself tearing through it at break-neck speed — especially when I thought I was getting close to learning what really happened to Anna. But after it was all over, I couldn’t help but feel vaguely unsatisfied . . . mostly because I wanted to learn more about William, a sort of 1876-version of an “animal whisperer,” and the burgeoning feelings Katherine had for him. I wanted to see Katherine happy, particularly after everything she’d been through, but I received only a hint of the resolution I sought.
Still, that didn’t cloud my enjoyment of the novel as a whole. Though certainly not an upbeat, wild ride, Dangerous Neighbors is a deeply introspective, thought-provoking story filled with memorable details and dimensional characters. It’s also my first read from Kephart, a popular young adult author, and I definitely don’t intend for it to be my last.
Fans of historical fiction will find a philosophical story with excellent atmosphere and historical details that had me Googling the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition on my lunch break. Though the book is focused on two teenage girls, I hope that won’t dissuade readers not accustomed to checking out teen fiction from picking this one up. There’s nothing pedestrian about the writing, which was quite literary, and it makes a fine addition to the young adult historical fiction genre. More than worth the afternoon it will take you to pour through it . . . and made me want to clutch my own sister a little tighter.
4 out of 5!