Ranked sixth on the Wall Street Journal's list of Best Places to Live, the fictional town of Littlefield, Massachusetts, is far from paradise.
First there are crude brown-paper signs—"Leash Your Beast Or Else"—stuck up around the park. Then there's a dead white bull mastiff, the first in a series of dogs to turn up poisoned. Dr. Clarice Watkins, a sociologist who's just moved to town to study "what must be the world's most psychologically policed and probably well-medicated population," soon realizes her subjects' supposed state of grace is under siege. She's causing a bit of a stir herself as a short, black woman who wears a turban and is believed to know the Obamas; she's invited to share her "tribal cuisine" at Celebrate Your Heritage Day. One of the more troubled residents in Watkins' study cohort is Julia Downing, the preteen daughter of a fraying marriage between a hypervigilant, bored mother (about to embark on an affair with the town's literary novelist) and a depressed, recently jobless dad. Their little girl is a bit of a sociologist herself. She keeps a popularity report on the seventh grade in which the top 10 shifts every day, but her own position remains at 73. For her history class, she's working on a survey of Littlefield, in which she counts 23 banks, 6 dog groomers, 4 yoga studios, 4 liquor stores, 1,146 psychotherapists, and 679 psychiatrists. For all her mother's helicoptering, Julia manages to get into some real scrapes. She falls through thin ice when trying to rescue a dog out on a wintry pond. Soon after, she screws up a babysitting job so badly that hospitalization and euthanasia are involved. These disasters have the perverse effect of making her a celebrity on social media. Berne (Missing Lucile, 2010, etc.), who won the Orange Prize for her first novel, A Crime in the Neighborhood (1997), is a sure hand at the dinner parties, school concerts, teacup tempests, and true moments of suspense that make a suburban comedy of manners par excellence.
It's too bad about the dogs, but they died for a good cause.