We Are Not Like Them: A Novel336
We Are Not Like Them: A Novel336
Named a Best Book Pick of 2021 by Harper’s Bazaar and Real Simple
Named a Most Anticipated Book of Fall by People, Essence, New York Post, PopSugar, New York Newsday, Entertainment Weekly, Town & Country, Bustle, Fortune, and Book Riot
Told from alternating perspectives, an evocative and riveting novel about the lifelong bond between two women, one Black and one white, whose friendship is indelibly altered by a tragic event—a powerful and poignant exploration of race in America today and its devastating impact on ordinary lives.
Jen and Riley have been best friends since kindergarten. As adults, they remain as close as sisters, though their lives have taken different directions. Jen married young, and after years of trying, is finally pregnant. Riley pursued her childhood dream of becoming a television journalist and is poised to become one of the first Black female anchors of the top news channel in their hometown of Philadelphia.
But the deep bond they share is severely tested when Jen’s husband, a city police officer, is involved in the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Six months pregnant, Jen is in freefall as her future, her husband’s freedom, and her friendship with Riley are thrown into uncertainty. Covering this career-making story, Riley wrestles with the implications of this tragic incident for her Black community, her ambitions, and her relationship with her lifelong friend.
Like Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage and Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things, We Are Not Like Them explores complex questions of race and how they pervade and shape our most intimate spaces in a deeply divided world. But at its heart, it’s a story of enduring friendship—a love that defies the odds even as it faces its most difficult challenges.
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About the Author
Jo Piazza is a bestselling author, podcast creator, and award-winning journalist. She is the national and international bestselling author of many critically acclaimed novels and nonfiction books including We Are Not Like Them, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, The Knockoff, and How to Be Married. Her work has been published in ten languages in twelve countries and four of her books have been optioned for film and television. A former editor, columnist, and travel writer with Yahoo, Current TV, and the Daily News (New York), her work has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, New York magazine, Glamour, Elle, Time, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast, and Slate. She holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania in economics and communication, a master’s in journalism from Columbia University, and a master’s in religious studies from New York University.
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Riley Chapter One RILEY
You can’t trust white people. My grandmother’s voice is in my head out of nowhere, her Alabama lilt still honey-thick despite almost a lifetime of living in Philadelphia. I swear I can even feel her hot breath in my ear. It’s been happening more and more lately, ever since Gigi passed out two weeks ago on her faded corduroy La-Z-Boy, where she faithfully watched Judge Mathis every afternoon. She may be over at Mercy Hospital on round-the-clock dialysis, with a prognosis the doctors call “grim,” but she’s also in my ear with her no-nonsense advice and favorite sayings on random rotation. Always keep some “runnin’” money in your pocketbook. Don’t kiss a man with dainty fingers. Never drink more than two glasses of brown liquor. Sometimes she’s a little more direct, like this morning when I stopped by the hospital and she clucked, Baby girl, that skirt’s a little short, ain’t it?
I glance down at my skirt, which probably is a little short for work. I tug at my hem, then force it all out of my mind and bust through the station’s double doors, as giddy as a kid playing hooky. Back upstairs, everyone is still in the middle of the 6 p.m. broadcast. For the first time in weeks, I was able to arrange it so I don’t have a package running or a live shot so I could leave at a decent hour and finally meet up with Jen. I’m still running twenty minutes late though. I pull out my phone to text her that I’m on my way and see she’s beaten me to the punch.
You’re even pushing CP time. Get over here already!
Funny, Jen... real funny. I roll my eyes, amused. Why did I let her in on the concept of “colored people” time?
I wait at the WALK sign at the corner, in the shadow of a giant billboard featuring the KYX Action News anchor team. As I look up at Candace Dyson’s face, the size of a small planet, the gloss of her toothy grin catching the setting sun, the usual thought runs through my head: One day. Candace was the first Black weeknight anchor at KYX. I idolized her growing up and told her as much on my first day of work five months ago. “I loved watching you as a kid. I dressed up like you for two straight Halloweens,” I gushed.
Instead of her being flattered, I was met with a chill that still hasn’t thawed despite my repeated attempts to ingratiate myself. Maybe she could sense how badly I wanted her chair. Maybe she sees me as a threat. Maybe I am.
When the light finally turns, I charge across the street, beads of sweat dripping down the back of my neck, my hair getting frizzier and frizzier by the second in the steamy humidity. It’s almost seventy degrees, which is just plain wrong considering it’s a week into December. It feels like I’m back in Birmingham, which makes me shudder despite the heat.
I bound through the entrance and slam into a throng of happy-hour revelers—a sea of Crayola-colored J.Crew sheath dresses and blue button-downs. I only suggested this place because it was close to the station, but I’m barely through the door before the crowd, the faux-farmhouse decor, the waitstaff in plaid suspenders, all combine to radiate an instantly irritating pretension.
Not long ago this street was all liquor stores and check-cashing places, the kind of block a woman knew better than to walk down after dark. It’s like this now all over the city; gentrification creeping into every corner, as relentless as water finding its way through every crack, the grit and grime replaced by sleek lofts and craft breweries. I barely recognize my hometown.
It’s the same feeling when I spot Jen sitting at the bar. It takes me several double takes to recognize my oldest friend. She’s chopped off her long hair so it ends right at her chin. In the three decades I’ve known her, she’s never once had short hair. She looks like a stranger. Without even quite meaning to, I edit the scene to a more familiar sight—Jen’s long dirty-blond hair, streaming down her back, smelling like the lavender Herbal Essences shampoo she’s faithfully used since middle school. She and I haven’t seen each other as much as we promised we would when I moved home, and it’s all my fault, the new job has consumed me, but seeing her now, I’m hit with a rush of love. Jenny.
I stop to watch her for a moment, a habit from when we were little girls. Back then, I thought if I studied her enough, I could train myself to be more like her—breezy, outgoing, fearless. But that never happened—turns out you don’t outgrow yourself.
Jen leans into the man sitting next to her, whispers something to him, playfully slaps his thigh, and then laughs so loudly other people look over. He’s mesmerized, basking in the attention like a fat lizard on a sun-soaked rock. This is what Jen does, draws you in and makes you believe there’s something uniquely interesting about you, even when you’re completely ordinary and boring, prying personal information from you that you aren’t even sure why you’re sharing. She probably already knows whether he gets along with his mother, the last time he cried, and what he’d rather be doing with his life besides going to happy hour at pretentious gastropubs. It’s her gift, her aggressive friendliness, and it’s why it was always Jen who charged into parties, or the first day of school, or the first track meet, with me trailing behind, counting on her to be our emissary, to make friends for the both of us. It was easy for Jen, who, unlike me, fits in everywhere, with everyone.
And though she’s not classically pretty—she once joked that she was “trailer-trash hot... a poor man’s Gwyneth Paltrow”—men have always been drawn to her. Like this guy who’s now leaning a little too close despite Jen’s wedding ring I can see even from here. Not to mention his.
I take a few steps in her direction and stop short when Jen turns ever so slightly. There, poking out from her black tunic, her round stomach. Like the hair, this startles me, though it shouldn’t. The last time I saw her, for brunch right before Halloween, she wasn’t really showing. Seeing her belly now, almost as big as the soccer balls we used to put under our shirts when we were little to pretend we were pregnant, makes it all too real. This pregnancy may not have even happened without my help, but I’m still getting used to the idea that Jen is having a baby. As if sensing me, Jen turns around and shouts, “Leroya Wilson, get your butt over here!”
I’m startled hearing my given name, which I stopped using years ago and for a second I wonder why she’s yelling it across a crowded bar. Then I see the look on her face and can tell she’s offering it as a term of endearment, a signal of our connection. I knew you when. It’s funny that I can’t even remember exactly how I came up with my new name, but I do remember how emphatic I was about changing it. It was after a field trip to the news station in eighth grade. Standing in the control room, watching the energy and action of live news, seeing Candace sitting at the anchor desk with her stiff helmet of curls and her Fashion Fair coral lipstick, gave birth to a dream.
I leaned over and whispered to Jen right then and there. “I’m gonna be her, Jenny. I’m going to be the next Candace Dyson.”
For weeks after, I spent every day after school staring in the bathroom mirror, wearing the plaid blazer Momma had bought me for mock trial and a mouthful of metal braces, practicing my sign-off. “This is Leroya Wilson, for Action Five News.” But it never felt quite right. It was rare enough to see someone on TV who looked like me, and when they did, they definitely didn’t have a name like Leroya. And so I became Riley.
By the time I’ve elbowed my way to the bar, Jenny is standing, waiting to greet me.
“I’m huge, right?” Jen arches her back and cups a hand under the bump to exaggerate its size.
“Well, I meant your hair!”
“Oh yeah! Surprise! I did it last week. I wanted something shorter and easier, but not a mom cut.” Her hand floats up from her stomach to run through what’s left of her hair. “It doesn’t look like a mom cut, right?”
“No, not at all,” I lie. “It’s very chic. Come here.” I pull Jen into a hug and flinch a little at the odd sensation of her hard belly pushing against mine. When I press my face into her hair, the familiar smell of lavender is so strong I can taste it. The nostalgia is like a warm blanket. Thank God I didn’t cancel. It had crossed my mind more than once today, but standing here in Jen’s embrace and a haze of memories, the stress about Gigi, work, my never-ending to-do list, the exhaustion—all of it recedes and there is only Jenny, exactly what I needed. I’m already more relaxed knowing that for the next few hours I don’t have to try so hard or impress anyone. Sometimes you just need to be around someone who loved you before you were a fully formed person. It’s like finding your favorite sweatshirt in the back of the closet, the one you forgot why you stopped wearing and once you find it again you sleep in it every night.
The press of Jen’s belly against mine does remind me of one thing I need to do: call Cookie back. I’m supposed to be cohosting Jen’s baby shower with her mother-in-law, a brunch on New Year’s Day, and Cookie has left me three messages this week. But every time I pick up the phone to call her back, I find a reason to procrastinate. Mainly because Cookie—a woman who uses “scrapbook” as a verb, constantly references her Pinterest boards, and refers to Chip and Joanna Gaines by their first names—keeps saying things like, “It’s the Year of the Baby!” as if “Year of the Baby” is a thing people say. Her last voice mail was an agonized two-minute monologue about what color balloons we should get, since Jenny “refuses” to find out the sex.
“Isn’t it so selfish that she won’t find out?” Cookie asked in the recorded rant.
Well, maybe it’s selfish for you to demand to know, Cookie. It’s what I want to tell her, but of course I won’t. My tongue may well fall out with all the times I’m going to have to bite it with her. I guess that’s the price I’ll have to pay, because Jenny deserves a fun shower, and if the tables were turned, I know Jen would be on the phone with my mom every night trying to convince her that rum punch served in baby bottles would be hysterical!
If there’s one thing Jen loves it’s a party, but she also always goes out of her way to be thoughtful, which makes you feel adored when it doesn’t make you feel undeserving.
Case in point: The day I moved back from Birmingham this summer, anxious and bone-tired from driving thirteen hours straight, there was Jen bounding out of the coffee shop next to my new building, where she’d been waiting for me to arrive for who knows how long. Her hands were full with not one but two housewarming gifts—a spiky houseplant and an eight-by-ten framed picture of us from when we were kids.
“You can’t kill a succulent,” she insisted, hugging me tightly before thrusting it into my arms.
I did kill the plant in record time, but the picture is still there on my mantel. It’s one of my favorites, taken when we were six or seven. We’d spent the afternoon running through the Logan Square fountain with a hundred other sun-drunk kids and the camera caught us lying on the wet cement, side by side in matching pink polka-dot bikinis, clutching each other’s hands.
While we waited for the super to get my new keys, we sat on the curb in the sticky heat. Jenny reached out to wipe my face. “You’re here,” she said.
I hadn’t even realized I was crying. I was just so... happy, or maybe it was more relieved. After everything that had happened over the last year, my fresh start was real. Sitting there together on the warm concrete, it was one of those rare times when, for a brief, glorious moment, the pieces in your life fall into place. I was home.
Jenny gestures now toward two stools to her left. “Here, sit.” She removes the denim jacket she’d spread across the top, oblivious that the man next to her is irritated to have been so abruptly robbed of her attention. She’s already forgotten him. “I saved three seats. One for you and two for my fat ass.”
“You wish you had a fat ass,” I joke. “You look great; you’re glowing,” I tell her.
“You too. But you always look camera-ready, so no surprise there. Your bangs are growing out. That’s good.” She reaches over to touch them. Jenny is the only white woman in the world I would let get away with that. Or talk me into cutting bangs.
“You know, I used to think you were such a weirdo for getting annoyed when people want to touch your hair, but now that I’ve got this”—she places a hand on either side of her stomach—“I get it now. I’m like Aladdin’s lamp. No one asks. They just rub.”
It isn’t the same thing at all, but I let it go.
I finger my bangs, which look even frizzier next to Jen’s smooth bob, which is now starting to grow on me. “So why did you talk me into this again? Chopping these two days before a brand-new job?”
“I know. My bad. We thought it would be very Kerry Washington in season two of Scandal.”
“Yeah, but it ended up more like Kim Fields in The Facts of Life. All I need is roller skates.”
“This’ll make it all better, Tootie.” Jenny slides over one of the sweating glasses. She doesn’t need to tell me it’s a vodka tonic.
“That’s why I love you.” A long sip sends the cool liquid flooding into my stomach, reminding me that, once again, I’ve gone the whole day without finding time to eat.
“I’m jealous.” Jenny raises her glass. “Ginger ale for me.”
“Oh, come on, have a glass of wine with me,” I beg her, because it’s not as much fun to drink alone. Now that I’m here, all I want is to get buzzed with my oldest friend.
Jenny looks down and clutches her belly protectively. I feel like I’m intruding on something private.
“I don’t want to chance it, Rye.”
I shouldn’t have suggested the wine. Not after all those years of trying, then the miscarriages, and all those rounds of IVF. Jen shakes her head. “I just can’t.”
“I understand.” It’s true, I do, but the role reversal is ironic given that it’s been Jen’s mission all these years to loosen me up, to get me to “live a little.”
I make a show of downing another gulp. “Then I’ll have to drink for the both of us.”
“I’m so glad you’re here. God, I’ve missed you so much!” Jen grabs my hands as soon as I set down my drink.
I don’t know why I’m suddenly self-conscious in the face of her effusive affection—and guilty too. “I’m sorry I’ve been so MIA. Work’s been brutal.”
Even with a top-of-the-line “miracle” concealer, I can see the dark circles and deep lines around my eyes in the long beveled mirror above the bar making me look closer to forty than thirty. So much for Black don’t crack. Clearly, the twelve-hour days, the six to ten packages I’m producing a week, and the almost nightly live shots are taking their toll. It’s the work of three people, but I’m used to that by now. You gotta work twice as hard to get half as far as them, baby girl. It was a mantra most Black kids were all too familiar with, as ubiquitous as reminders to lotion up ashy knees.
“No worries, I get it. And you’re totally killing it. I loved your story last night on how the city needs to invest more money in the West Philly school lunch program. I had no idea how many kids went without lunch every day because they couldn’t afford it.”
“You caught that?” It had taken several weeks to convince my boss, Scotty, the news director, to let me do the piece, and then when all the positive emails started rolling in, he’d conveniently forgotten that he’d said, “Not sure anyone’s going to care, Wilson.”
“Are you kidding me? Of course I did. I always catch your broadcasts, Rye! You’re the only reason I watch the crappy local news. And soon you’re gonna be anchor!” Jen raises her soda and clinks my glass so hard I’m worried she cracked it.
“We’ll see.” I half-heartedly toast, scared that I’m going to jinx it somehow. Don’t go counting your chickens before they hatch. Jen was the first and only person I’d told when I heard Candace might be retiring soon. I always assumed Candace was the type to be carried out of the studio in a coffin, but sure enough, when Scotty took me to lunch last month, he confirmed the rumors that she may “soon be exploring other opportunities,” and that he’d probably be looking for someone “internal” to replace her. It was clear from the way he said it that she, a woman just past sixty, was being pushed out after more than two decades at the station. I should have been outraged by that, but I was too focused on what it could mean for me—a chance at the anchor desk. Given that I’ve only been at the station a few months, it’s a long shot, but ever since Scotty dangled it as a possibility, it’s a shiny prize that I’m reaching for, greedy as a grubby-handed toddler grabbing for candy. The more Jen acts like it’s a done deal though, the more anxious I feel about the fact that it might not happen.
“Trust me, it’ll happen,” Jen continues. “I know it. Anchor by forty! Right? You always said that was the goal. You’re gonna get the job, and your bangs are gonna be a mile high on that billboard. You’ll be so famous, and then I can tell everyone that I knew you when you used to practice French kissing on a pillowcase with Taye Diggs’s face on it.” She looks down and rubs both hands over her belly again. “It’s all happening for us, Rye. All the things.”
“God, remember how many games of MASH we used to play? I feel like I was somehow always living in a shack with Cole Bryant from algebra.”
“OMG, you would have been thrilled to live in a shack with Cole. You loved his dirty drawers!”
It’s funny to think of just how many hours—endless—that Jen and I devoted to imagining our future lives: where we would live, what we would do, who we would love, how many kids we would have. All we wanted was for our lives to hurry up and happen already. And now here we are. It was supposed to be the happily-ever-after part; what we didn’t understand is that adulthood would be a relentless series of beginnings—new cities, new jobs, new relationships, new babies, new worries. Which is probably why I can’t escape the feeling of always being on the cusp of the next thing.
“Here’s to us, all growed up.” This time, I clink my glass to Jen’s more enthusiastically. My head spins from downing my drink too fast and my stomach growls. “I really need some food.”
“Me too, we’re starving.” It takes me a second to figure out what Jen means by “we.”
The menu is a long strip of parchment affixed to a piece of leather and printed with the day’s date on top like a newspaper. Each dish has a gag-worthy “origin story.” Steak tartare from Bucks County, farm-fresh burrata from Haverford described as “barnyardy,” and honey procured from hives on the restaurant’s roof. It’s a long way from the Kool-Aid, Stouffer’s pizza, and boxed mac and cheese we grew up on.
“Everything is crazy expensive,” Jenny says, staring at the menu as if it’s a problem to solve.
It’s true, the prices for “the array of small plates” are as absurd as their descriptions. I should have picked a cheaper place, considering how much Jenny and Kevin are struggling. But the subject of money is something I try to avoid with her entirely, so she won’t be reminded of the reason it looms between us, the loan I know she’ll never be able to pay back. I didn’t have a choice though. I had to give her the money. When I was home for the holidays last year, and she stopped by my parents’ place as usual on Christmas Eve, she was a desperate wreck. It had been more than six weeks since her final round of IVF, her third try, didn’t work.
“What can I do?” I’d asked, as we passed a bottle of warm red wine between us, and then wondered what I would say if Jen wanted me to carry her baby in some sort of Lifetime-movie-of-the-week scenario.
“Nothing.” Jen lay down on my childhood bed. I stretched out beside her, wrapped my arms around her bony frame, and buried my face in her hair. It smelled like it hadn’t been washed for days, not a trace of lavender.
“You can try again, right?”
“No. We can’t.” Jen sighed.
“You can. You will,” I insisted. “What will it take for you to try again?”
There was a long stretch before she spoke.
“Money. We’re already, like, thirty grand in debt.”
“Thirty grand,” I repeated, taking in the staggering number. It was more than my annual salary in my first job out of college, working as a scrub reporter in Joplin, Missouri. And it was an insane amount of money to spend on something that didn’t seem to be working at all. They still didn’t have a baby. But I made up my mind not to judge. Besides, I’d never seen Jen like this. It was painful to witness someone you love want something so desperately, and to watch as each miscarriage fundamentally altered her—made her more fragile and bitter. Gigi said it was like Jen’s spirit itself was withering like forgotten fruit. There was only one thing to do.
“How much do you need?” I braced myself for the answer.
Jen didn’t respond right away, which made me think she might say no, and maybe that’s what I wanted. Finally, she said, in as small a voice as I’d ever heard her use, “Maybe five thousand? That could help us... if it’s not too much.”
Again, I tried not to react to the number and just wrote her a check, instantly wiping out more than half my hard-earned savings. The way she couldn’t stop saying, “Thank you, thank you,” as she hugged me and wouldn’t let go made it all worth it. So did her scream—so loud I had to hold the phone away from my ear—when she’d called to tell me the next round of IVF had worked. Still, sometimes the money feels like a little pebble caught in a shoe; you’re not going to stop walking, but you always know it’s there. We both look down at her belly now and silently come to the same conclusion—any awkwardness between us is a small price to pay.
“Don’t worry. I can expense dinner. We might do a story on this place.” I lie again to make us both feel better. “Order whatever you want. It’s on me... on the station.”
Jenny’s visibly relieved as she turns back to the menu. “Well, in that case let’s get it all. We fancy. We’ve come a long way from Chef Boyardee, huh?”
The bartender finally tears himself away from a gaggle of blondes who barely look of drinking age and pays us some attention. I can tell when he does a double take that he recognizes me. It’s embarrassing how much I like this, how it never gets old. I offer him a sheepish smile, but he’s all business, with a brisk “What can I get you?” and even then, he only addresses Jen, as if she’s the one footing the bill. I order $100 of overpriced small plates to prove a point, though what exactly that point is, I have no idea. The bartender walks away before I can even set down the menu.
“We’re gonna feast! Kevin’s been picking up all the shifts he can until the baby comes and doing overtime working the Eagles games on Sundays, so I’ve been eating a lot of cereal alone on the couch bingeing Fixer Upper.”
“The glam life of a cop’s wife.”
Jen bites the edge of her bottom lip, a lifelong nervous habit that’s left her with a tiny white scar. “I wish. It’s been hard. The holidays are such a shit time to be a cop. Thanksgiving and Christmas are supposed to be, like, the happiest time of year for most people, but there are way more calls, more domestics, and a lot more suicides. Kevin had to go to one last week—day after Thanksgiving, guy hung himself in the backyard from his daughter’s swing set. So awful, right? He left a note taped to the swings that said he couldn’t fight the demons. It messed Kevin up for days. He doesn’t say anything, but I can tell. It’s too much for the cops... to be the social workers, the therapists.... Anyway, enough about that. God, so depressing. How’s Gigi?”
For as long as Jen has known her, she has called my grandmother by the same nickname my brother, Shaun, and I use, the one I gave Gigi when I was first learning to talk and couldn’t say “Grandma.” Of course, Gigi loves this, since Jen is basically her granddaughter too. I tease her that she loves Jen more than me and vice versa. Ever since the very first day Jenny came to the day care that Gigi ran out of our house, the one she started when she moved in with us after Grandpa died and she retired from thirty years at Bell Atlantic, she took a special shine to Jenny, calling her “my little firecracker.”
I always rib Gigi about this. “But can we trust her, you know, her being white and all?”
To which Gigi responds with the utmost sincerity: “Oh, baby, you know Jenny is different. She isn’t like the rest of them.” It was too funny since I can bet on the number of times people have said that about me.
“I overheard my mom talking to Pastor Price about needing to think about ‘the arrangements’ for Gigi and I got so angry. Like Mom was acting like she was already gone.”
Jen puts her hand on my arm. “Gigi’s a fighter, Rye. She’s still got a lot of life in her.”
“I don’t know.... The dialysis isn’t cutting it anymore, and there’s just not much else the doctors can do.” I pause for a moment, worried I’m going to sound crazy, but then I tell her anyway. “Gigi’s been haunting me. I hear her voice everywhere, Jenny, and it makes me feel like I’m losing my mind.”
“Is she reminding you that nice girls wear pantyhose?” Jen scrunches up her face and cackles, so loudly people look over again. She’s clearly thinking about the time Gigi insisted Jenny borrow a pair of her stockings to wear to church one Sunday after she’d slept over, even though the Hanes Her Way were two shades too brown for Jenny’s pale legs.
“It’s not funny!” I say. “Maybe I’m losing it.”
“Shut your mouth. You’re not crazy. You’re worried about her. You love her. And you got a lot going on.” Jen rubs the knot between my shoulder blades. “I should go see her.”
“Yeah, she’d love that. She was asking about you, and I told her I was seeing you tonight. She’ll want to rub your tummy and tell you the baby’s future. Who they’re gonna marry, when they’ll be elected president...”
“You know because of Gigi I grew up thinking all Black people were psychic.”
“It’s not psychic. It’s the tingles.”
Gigi always claimed that the women in the Wilson family had a touch of the “tingles,” a sense of knowing the future.
I’m about to remind Jen of the time we tried to convince Gigi to let us charge the kids at school for her psychic readings when I see the moment has taken a turn. Jen is staring off into space, brows knitted. “Don’t you wish you really could see the future, Rye? I just want to know everything’s going to be okay. He, she... it’s all going to be okay, right?”
Jenny and I were always making wishes together as kids—for our crushes to notice us, for Juicy sweat suits our parents couldn’t afford, for boobs. She’d offer a fallen eyelash on the tip of her finger and tell me to blow. She would get annoyed when I wouldn’t tell her my wishes, the ones I was too embarrassed about or most wanted to come true; I didn’t want to risk ruining my chances.
I grab Jen’s hand to reassure us both.
“Is this the hormones? A second ago we were toasting to all our dreams coming true. Of course the baby’s fine. Little Bird is healthy and happy and can’t wait to make fun of their mama with me.”
When Jenny first starting calling the baby “Little Bird” after the Philadelphia Eagles mascot, it sounded like the corniest thing I’d ever heard, but over time I’ve decided it’s sort of cute. I even found these adorable onesies on Etsy with baby birds and bought twenty of them that I’m planning to string up at her baby shower. Also, a shirt for her that reads, “Momma Bird.” So I have done something for the shower, even if it was without Cookie’s approval, which I suspect isn’t going to go over too well.
“I’m just freaked out, you know. The closer I get...” Jen stops and looks down at her stomach again. “The scarier it is. There are so many things that can go wrong. You know what I mean?”
I know exactly what she means—the biting fear that everything you’ve worked for can disappear in a second, that you can bust your butt, do everything right, and it won’t matter one bit. I know it all too well.
“It’s going to be fine, Jenny. Better than fine. I’m so, so happy for you.” Granted, it’s a complicated happiness. I want to love this new part of Jenny’s life, but there have been times when I’ve secretly indulged a stupid, petty, and selfish line of thinking: What does all this mean for me? How will this change everything? But in this moment none of that matters. It all gives way to a pure and bone-deep joy that Jen is about to get the thing she’s always wanted, her version of the anchor chair.
I wrap my arms around my friend and hug her tightly and hope the physical reassurance will penetrate more than words. When she pulls back to look at me, she’s so close I can count the constellation of freckles that dot her nose. I still don’t say anything. Instead, I touch my index finger to the middle of my left eyebrow, and this does the trick—the memory chases the worry from Jen’s face.
We were twelve when I decided to experiment with plucking my bushy brows for the first time. I wanted to give them a fierce arch like Posh Spice. But I was too excited and overplucked and then overplucked some more until half my left eyebrow was gone. No one could make me come out of my room, not Gigi, not Momma. I had finally opened the door for Jen, who promptly fell on the floor laughing, which only made me howl even louder. Then, while I stood there blubbering, Jenny marched right into the bathroom, grabbed a pink Bic, and shaved off half of her own left eyebrow. On the rare occasions I get annoyed with her, this is what I think of to calm myself down, the time Jenny shaved off half an eyebrow for me.
“You’re right, you’re right. I’m sure everything is gonna be fine. And guess what? I have some news.” Jen brightens, her dark mood passing as quickly as it arrived. “I officially gave notice on Monday!”
“Oh, really?” I’m so caught off guard, it’s hard to keep my voice neutral. It’s not like Jen loves being a receptionist for a dentist on the Main Line, but given their money situation, I didn’t think quitting was an option.
“What?” Jenny asks, clearly expecting a happier reaction.
“Nothing. I’m just surprised. I guess I didn’t see you as the stay-at-home-mom type.”
“It’s not forever. Kevin’s schedule is nuts. It changes all the time. He’s four days on, then four nights, and that’s when he doesn’t pick up the overtime. One of us needs the flexibility. It’s best for me to stay home. He’s on track to make sergeant soon, and that’ll mean more money coming in. And I’m going to throw myself into raising this little one and making French toast every morning, and packing healthy lunches every day just like Lou.”
There’s a beat before we crack up at how far this is from the truth. The only thing Jen’s mom, Louise, has ever been good for are dirty jokes, dirty martinis, and dirty looks. Her idea of a home-cooked meal is a Lean Cuisine.
As if on cue, our food arrives, and we turn our attention to appetizers that live up to their description of small plates. The farm-raised-beef sliders are no bigger than a half-dollar. Jenny pops two into her mouth back-to-back like popcorn, errant globs of mustard dribbling down onto her belly. I dip the corner of my napkin into my water glass and reach over to dab at the stain. There’s a reason I stopped sharing clothes with her.
“God. I was starving,” Jenny says, scooping up a bacon-wrapped date. “So listen. More big news. Kevin has a man for you.”
Jen likes to give the impression that Kevin is much more invested in my life than he actually is—I suspect she’s always had this romantic idea that we would be the Three Musketeers or something. But I can’t say Kevin and I instantly clicked when we first met all those years ago, despite Jen’s assurances that I was going to love him. My first impression when I saw him though was, This guy? It was hard to pick him out from all the other identical-looking white guys in plaid at the Irish pub on Walnut Street we’d met up at on one of my rare visits home. Kevin wasn’t what I was expecting based on everyone who had come before him—the tattoo artist, the professional poker player, the guy who lived on a rickety houseboat and grew hydroponic weed. The evening was pleasant enough, and I could see how much Kevin adored Jenny, but he clearly didn’t feel he had to work particularly hard to earn my approval even though I was the best friend. Later I’d overheard him talking to Jenny. “Yeah, she’s cool, you guys are just so... different.” Which was fair, and I felt the same about him. Kevin—simple, basic, vanilla, chinos-wearing Kevin—was just not who I’d always imagined for my friend.
He’s not enough for you. It was my first thought when Jen announced they were engaged a year later. And then: Please don’t settle. But I swallowed those doubts with a gleeful scream and a promise to throw myself into maid-of-honor duties immediately. I have no idea what Kevin thinks about me beyond how “different” I am, but I don’t believe for a second that he’s the driving force in any setup. It’s Jen who, like every married woman with an unattached best friend the world over, has a single-minded mission to find me someone.
“Oh yeah?” I can guess the reason Kevin thinks this guy and I would make such a great match.
Jen takes a big bite of a crab cake and talks as she chews. “His name is Kayvon Freeman.”
And there you go: a fine upstanding brother.
“He just came onboard as detective at the Twenty-Second District with Kevin. Moved here from Delaware... I guess he wanted to work in a bigger city or something.”
A cop? No way in hell would I ever date a cop. But I obviously can’t tell Jen that.
“And he’s hot. And tall, we know that’s a must! Kevin says you two would hit it off. We should double! I mean, Kevin/Kayvon. It’s too perfect.”
“I have zero time to date right now, Jen.” It’s my stock response—offered reflexively as a defense and an excuse. “I’m so busy. I need to—”
Jenny stops me with a raised palm. “Riley. It’s time. How long has it been since you’ve had sex? Your vagina probably has cobwebs by now.” She playfully makes as if to lift my skirt, but her tone is laced with concern.
“I’m focused on other things. And I’ve got time.” Though some days it doesn’t feel like that at all. Some nights I’m wrenched awake at 3 a.m. with the unsettling sensation that time is speeding past me and I’m so behind I’ll never catch up. I know what Jen’s going to say before she opens her mouth. Because it’s a lecture I give myself at least once a week.
“C’mon Rye. You can’t be single forever. It’s time to move on. To get back out there. You need to—”
I put my hand up to stop her before she gets to the part about how all the “good ones” are going to be taken.
Even though she may have a point. At Jen’s urging I went on two dates since moving back to Philly, with people she’d swiped for me on Tinder. One guy talked about himself the whole time and then when I called him out about it said, “I’m just trying to help you get to know me.” And the other one told me I must think I’m “big-time” when I told him about my job and then just eyed the check when it arrived, waiting for me to pick it up. I had little faith third time would be the charm.
“I can’t take the idea of getting back out there, Jenny... starting from scratch with someone new, letting someone see me naked for the first time....”
“So you’re just going to be celibate forever? No way. Here, give me my bag so I can get my phone. Let me show you his picture. You’ll want me to make this date happen tomorrow.” Jen goes to grab her purse and then winces sharply.
“Son of a bitch.”
“Are you okay?”
“Fine, fine, this happens all the time,” she says, waving off my concern.
“Just a kick. Right in my ribs. You want to feel?” Without waiting for an answer, she grabs my hand and places it to the left of her belly button. There’s a series of little jabs, quick and insistent. I fight against pulling my hand away from the little alien boxing in my friend’s belly.
Jen finally finds her phone and pulls it out triumphantly.
“Ugh. Kevin’s texted a bunch.” Her stubby fingers swipe the texts away and scroll through her photo album. “Here, I found him. Kayvon. Hot, right?” Jenny holds up the screen.
Kayvon is attractive, with his buffed bald head and sprinkle of stubble. In the photo he’s dressed in his buttoned-up blues and wearing a sly kind of smirk, like he could be up to trouble. I see him giving me that smile across the table in a dimly lit restaurant and then I see him slapping handcuffs on teenagers and wrestling them to the ground. I chase both images away with a swig of my drink.
“Okay, true story. He is good-looking. So maybe... we’ll see.” I’m hoping Jen just drops this, even though I know better.
“No, no maybes. This is happening. It’s been like a year since Corey.”
Actually, it was fifty-six weeks to be exact. Hearing his name out loud, my stomach turns over on itself. I should be over this by now. It makes me crazy that I can still have this reaction to just hearing his name. Or finding one of his socks tucked in the back of a drawer, like I did last week, which threatened to wreck my whole afternoon, until I marched out on the balcony, threw it into the air, and watched it flutter onto the hood of a delivery truck.
I hold my breath and wait for Jen to ask me again about what happened between us. She’s never been satisfied with my vague answers. But she seems to register the pained look on my face and switches gears. Corey is a bear we do not poke.
“We need dessert,” Jen says, and we let the subject dissipate like smoke after fireworks.
“Okay, you have to get the bartender’s attention though; he’s not giving me the time of day. Look pregnant and hungry and sad.”
“I can do that.” As Jenny juts out her lower lip and bats her eyelashes at the bartender, her phone buzzes and “Hubby” lights up on the screen.
“Seriously? It’s like I go out one night and he can’t stop texting me.” She rolls her eyes, but I know she loves this about Kevin, that he needs her so much.
“Oh, text him back. You’re pregnant. He’s probably worried about you.”
She swipes to open the message. “Or he’s bored. He always texts when he’s on patrol and he’s bored. I told him to start playing one of those games where you kill birds—”
In almost thirty years I’ve seen about every expression Jenny can make. I know her face like I know my own. But the look she has right now, as she reads Kevin’s message, is one I’ve never seen. I grab her arm. “What’s wrong? Is Kevin okay?”
She doesn’t respond, too focused on opening the Uber app. “I have to go.”
“What? What happened?”
“I have to go.” She’s in motion, gathering her bag, her coat, knocking over her purse, picking it up by one strap. A tube of ChapStick falls and rolls across the floor.
“Wait. Jen. You have to tell me what’s going on.”
“Something happened... to Kevin.”
It is these four words that will haunt me, how she phrased it: Something happened. To Kevin.
“My Uber’s pulling up,” she says. “Look, I’m sorry, I just need to find out what’s going on. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?” She’s already standing, buttoning her coat. She moves in for a quick hug.
I’m worried, but also a little pissed at being inexplicably shut out like this.
“Okay, then.” I probably sound bitchy but she’s not listening anyway. She’s halfway out the door.
When the bartender appears, I order a second drink, which is noticeably stronger than the last one, practically a shot. Maybe he saw Jenny rush out. Maybe he thinks I was dumped by my pretty, white, pregnant girlfriend, which makes me laugh a little. The liquid singes the back of my throat as I drain the glass and then search for my phone, calculating that it’s been at least an hour since I’ve checked it, a record these days.
Adrenaline pricks at my skin when I see I’ve missed three texts from Scotty.
We need you tonight.
Where are you?
Get here, now.
He also sent two emails. As I open them, my whole body buzzes, the tingles. A Black teenager shot by a Philadelphia police officer, in critical condition. I make the sickening connection. I know exactly why Jenny had to rush home.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for We Are Not Like Them includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Jen and Riley have been best friends since childhood. But one event severely tests the deep bond they share. Jen’s husband, a city police officer, is involved in the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager. Six months pregnant, Jen is in freefall as her future, her husband’s freedom, and her friendship with Riley are thrown into uncertainty. Covering this career-making story, Riley wrestles with the implications of this tragic incident for her community, her ambitions, and her relationship with her lifelong friend. Told from alternating perspectives, this novel is a powerful and poignant exploration of race in America today and its devastating impact on ordinary lives.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What emotions did you experience while reading the prologue? Why do you think the authors chose to open with this scene?
2. How did you interpret Kevin’s behaviors after the incident? Did you feel any sympathy for him, and do you think he deserved everything that happened after? Who do you blame for what happened?
3. Did you find yourself torn over how to feel about any of the characters’ reactions or decisions in the novel? What moments were particularly controversial to you, and how did they challenge your perceptions?
4. Discuss how this novel exhibits instances of prejudice based on privilege, class, and race. What about instances of unconscious bias?
5. Riley says to Jen: “I didn’t want to be the Black girl always talking about race. That’s no fun. And I don’t know what your reaction would be if I told you about all the shit I have to deal with because I’m a Black woman. What if you didn’t have the right reaction?” (page 246). How might we be able to more openly discuss our feelings about these sensitive issues? Do you think there’s ever a reason these things should be left undiscussed? Have you ever struggled to express a feeling or observation about race out of fear of being dismissed or misunderstood?
6. Did Jen and Riley’s alternating voices highlight any important similarities or differences about their experiences during the novel? Did you relate to one character in particular?
7. Riley and Jen are pulled between their friendship and their commitments to their careers, families, and communities. Do you think they made the right choices? Have you ever felt caught between your obligations to others and yourself?
8. Jen struggles with supporting her husband and her complicated feelings about his actions and innocence. Do you think she’s too afraid of his family to question him more? How does family influence your descisions?
9. How did you interpret the reactions from the media and social platforms throughout the novel? How are these mediums helpful or harmful to the people at the center of the story?
10. The tragedy that sparks the divide in Riley and Jen’s relationship exposes some fault lines in their shared history. When is a friendship worth hanging on to, and when is it time to let go? How did their bond change by the end of the novel, for better or worse?
11. Were there parts of the novel that made you uncomfortable, and why?
12. What do you think of the book’s title? What does it encapsulate about this story? Who are “We” and “Them” in the title?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. “What we didn’t understand is that adulthood would be a relentless series of beginnings” (page 14). Discuss how you invisioned adult life as a kid? What is something that you were not expecting to experience—a new city, new job prospects, or a different lifestyle?
2. Riley tells Jen, “It’s a privilege to never think about race” (page 247). How has privilege affected your life? How has the absence of privilege affected your life? Discuss an event where you recognized that privilege affected the outcome.
3. A 2014 study found that three out of four white people have no nonwhite friends. Are you surprised by this statistic? How does where you grew up affect the friends you make into adulthood?
A Conversation with Christine Pride and Jo Piazza
1. We Are Not Like Them opens with the police shooting of an unarmed Black teenage boy. Why did you choose this event as the catalyst, and how did you work to get it right?
From the very beginning we knew we wanted to tell the story of a lifelong friendship between two women, a white woman and a Black woman, and explore how race impacts that relationship in unexpected ways. The issue of shootings of unarmed Black men was very much at the forefront of a national conversation when we started the book (and, sadly, remains so), capturing headlines across the country and sparking a movement—not to mention a lot of inflamed feelings and divisiveness. We were attracted to the idea of humanizing this hot-button issue and to the opportunity to foster a conversation about race through the lens of one powerful (and wholly relatable) friendship. Also, one of Christine’s close (white) friends from childhood is married to a (white) cop, and this premise was loosely inspired by wondering what would happen if Christine found herself in a similar scenario as Riley.
Jo brought the point of view of a longtime journalist to the project and we tried to interview as many people as possible, not just to make sure our portrayal was accurate, but to make sure we captured the different emotions of everyone involved. We spoke to police officers (and their spouses), district attorneys, community activists and the mothers of shooting victims, and read and researched firsthand accounts and statistics.
2. How did your own friendship inspire you to write this book?
We became incredibly close while working together on Jo’s last novel, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, which Christine published at Simon & Schuster. As our friendship evolved so did our conversations about race. We knew we were lucky and privileged to even be able to have them. Statistics show that fewer than 10 percent of people have a close friend of another race. We were energized by the idea of working together in a unique way, as both friends and collaborators, and leveraging our relationship to tell a story that would help readers have their own conversations about race and think more deeply about their own friendships.
4. Your novel shows how stereotyping and racism can seep into even the closest of relationships. Why did you choose to show two characters experiencing this dynamic within a treasured friendship?
It’s hard to have a friend of another race in America. The hard truth is that in our country, race permeates almost all aspects of our lives in one way or another, even our intimate relationships, and this story attempts to pull the curtain back to show how that happens in ways we don’t always realize or can’t avoid. It was important to us that both Black women and white women be able to relate to our characters. We chose to write in the first person so that we could dig deep into their minds and give voice to some of the difficult thoughts (spoken and unspoken) and pitfalls about race and racism from both perspectives. Our goal was to show the very real and relatable challenges people might have in trying to understand another’s experience and mindset. It’s the greatest goal of the novel to spark empathy and that was what we hope to do here, to offer a bridge over what can sometimes feel like a yawning gap in understanding and awareness, and help readers recognize and reckon with some of their own blind spots and beliefs.
4. Two different voices and experiences are captured in We Are Not Like Them, but you avoid creating a sense of false balance around the shooting. How did you approach the dual perspectives?
Our world is so polarized right now, and the issue that animates our plot—a police shooting—invites a lot of impassioned opinions and feelings. We were aware it risked lending itself to a good guy/bad guy dichotomy pretty quickly, and we wanted to avoid that at all costs. Readers may come in with preconceived notions, so we had to be careful that our audience didn’t “side” with any one woman over the other, but the richness of the read comes from the seesaw back-and-forth between identifying with both. It was vital that we be clear that we didn’t have an agenda and were committed to showing the many nuances and complexities.
We wanted our characters to be real and not just representative, so we also spent a long time talking about who they were, what motivated them, what scared them, what they loved, what they hated. We came up with lists about their likes and dislikes, their passions and fears, etc., much of which never even made it into the book in the literal sense, but colors all of their experiences and reactions. We loved this idea that a somewhat random twist of fate brought these two young girls together who may not have become close friends had they met in another way, or had they met at any other time (when their differences would have been more pronounced). In many ways, Riley and Jen are a somewhat odd match, even aside from their race, and it was fun to explore the intangible bonds that pull and hold us to each other even when a relationship is unlikely, and even when it’s tested.
It was important to us that each character earned and deserved both sympathy and frustration in equal measure. Our hope is that the reader will say, “I can see why she did/thought that” when it comes to both Riley and Jen, even if there are moments when you want to scream at them too. All the while, all through the ups and downs, we wanted the reader to be able to root for not just the two characters, but, most important, the friendship itself.
5. Can you tell us about your shared writing process?
Thank the Lord for Google Docs. We’ve tried everything in terms of collaboration and it took a long time, but we finally came up with a process that works. We discuss the big ideas and broad strokes in a comprehensive outline first. And then, chapter by chapter, one of us takes a pass at the blank page. This is often the hardest part . . . especially the first chapter. (We can’t tell you how many drafts we went through there.) And then we trade it back and forth, working in the suggestion and commenting modes. Then we’ll get on the phone, or video chat or meet in person, to go over the things that can’t easily be resolved on the page.
6. What challenges did you face in writing this book?
Writing a book is hard. Writing a book with someone else is hard. All that vulnerability and fear and self-doubt that’s so much a baked-in part of the process is on full display. It’s like letting someone watch you sing badly in the shower after eating a sheet cake. And then add difficult talks about race to the mix? Woo-wee is the only term that captures this particular perfect storm. There were times when we were truly tested and worried our friendship might not recover. There were weeks when our emotions were rubbed raw and we often joked about going to couples’ counseling. We’ve also thought about writing an essay called “How Writing a Book About Race Almost Destroyed Our Interracial Friendship.” But it was also one of the most meaningful things that either of us have ever done. In a single day of writing, we could start out laughing, butt heads, cry alone in our bathrooms, send a shy apology text, nail an incredible paragraph/page/chapter, laugh together, and push each other harder. And the result, at the end of a string of a million days like those, is a book we’re proud of and a friendship and professional relationship that’s stronger and better because of this journey together.
7. Were there any other novels or works that inspired you during this writing process?
The most excruciating part of the writing process is feeling like everyone else is doing it better and having an easier time of it. When you read someone else’s perfect sentence, or ending, or a scene that brings tears to your eyes and you think, Wow, I want to be able to do that. That said, it’s incredibly motivating too. And we’re both such voracious readers—during the period we wrote this book, we probably read well over one hundred books between us—so it wasn’t so much any one book that inspired us, but all of them, collectively. All of these fellow writers who inspired us with their characters and stories and craft and sparkling prose. Reading widely while we were working really pushed us and educated us, and often helped us troubleshoot when we were wrestling with something thorny. The way to become a better writer is to be a better reader, after all. We’re constantly awed and adoring and deeply admiring when it comes to people who put their hearts on the page and create these beautiful words, and it’s a privilege to be in this company.
8. Christine, this is your first novel. What was your journey to becoming a writer and how did you know this was the right book?
Being an editor for the last fifteen years has truly been a gift; some people have jobs, but I’ve really felt lucky to have found a calling and to have gotten to work with wildly talented writers and publish books that have touched readers. But throughout my career, I’ve also witnessed how the industry has been woefully underrepresentative in the types of stories and characters that are championed. As a kid, I craved more books (and TV shows, for that matter) that featured people who looked like me, that reflected my reality and my community, and as an adult, despite lots of great strides, I still notice that gap. There’s a thirst and moral imperative for even more offerings that reflect more diverse experiences and stories and voices. I realized I could offer that; I could write that book—a novel that featured a character and a friendship and realities about being a Black woman in America that were familiar to me. And furthermore, that could tackle a topic that feels urgent and important to boot. My greatest goal as an editor—and now as a writer—is to give readers a vehicle to reflect on their lives and experiences in a meaningful way, and to feel emotionally stirred in a way that leaves an imprint long after the last page of the story.
From a practical standpoint, it’s a little surreal to be on the other side. The thing about working in publishing for so long, “behind the scenes” so to speak, is that I know firsthand the overwhelming passion and commitment my colleagues bring to the table, working tirelessly on behalf of books they love in a business that’s not always easy. It’s a special experience now to have that support and community and vision from a different vantage point. Getting to see things from another perspective has also made me empathize with my authors more. For example, all the times I’ve reminded someone over the years that they shouldn’t constantly check their Amazon ranking or read too much into it, I now understand how futile that was, and how difficult it will be to not give into the irrational inclination to hit that refresh button.
9. Jo, you’ve written many novels before, most recently Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win. How was writing We Are Not Like Them different for you?
My past novels have been told from one point of view. For We Are Not Like Them, we needed to get into the heads of two completely different women and see a single event from their very divergent and emotional points of view.
It can be exhausting to try to be two people at once. Each character really was a collaboration with Christine, so we each had to inhabit Jen and Riley at different times. I’d go for weeks only working on Riley chapters because it was the only way I could nail down her feelings and intentions without Jen getting in the way. I often did the same thing while reading through the book. I would read Jen’s chapters all the way through and then Riley’s chapters all the way through as if each of them were their own book.
10. Are you planning to write more books together?
Yes! We’ve already started the next one.
11. What do you hope readers will take away from We Are Not Like Them?
Our running joke about We Are Not Like Them is: Come for the friendship, stay for the social justice. We hope we give readers a starting point for difficult conversations about race. We know that a lot of women don’t have close friends of another race, and we’re hoping that the friendship between Riley and Jen can give them some perspective on what it is like and an entryway into the conversations Riley and Jen are forced to have with themselves and with each other.
We also hope that the book can help readers initiate hard conversations about race when they’re confronted with a shocking headline about a racially motivated shooting, hate speech, bias, and racism. We want to provide readers with new language and stories to approach these really difficult stories and events.
But above all that, even, we hope that readers will relish this book as a celebration of friendship and be inspired to take stock and appreciate their own close friends. If readers turn the last page and want to call their bestie, it means we’ve done our job.
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