WE ARE NOT LIKE THEM
By Christine Pride and Jo Piazza
In the first line of “We Are Not Like Them,” a novel by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, a 14-year-old Black boy, Justin Dwyer, is struck by police bullets in Philadelphia. Justin has pictured his death at the hands of law enforcement. He wonders what the headlines will say and observes that being shot doesn’t feel the way he imagined it would. But the novel isn’t about Justin or his family. His tragedy becomes the catalyst for an overdue reckoning between two lifelong friends, a Black woman named Riley and a white woman named Jen, who are divided by his murder.
After a brief, brutal prologue, the focus pivots to Riley and Jen at an upscale Philly restaurant. Riley is a broadcast journalist, back in her hometown after a heartbreaking separation from a white boyfriend she adored but couldn’t trust. Jen is finally pregnant following a struggle with I.V.F. Their dinner is disrupted when Jen gets word that her husband, Kevin, is one of two officers who shot Justin Dwyer. Riley is summoned to the station to cover the story, and the crisis sets the women on separate courses.
While the driving question of the novel is meant to be what will become of their friendship, the story is most affecting when the women are apart. Jen, simultaneously protective of her husband and horrified at what he’s done, suffers harassment on- and offline. Her pregnancy compounds her vulnerability and terror at what may happen to her family. For Riley, the shooting presents a chance at a big break. She can use her family connections to land an exclusive interview with Justin’s mother, Tamara, advancing her own career and seeking justice for the Dwyers all at once … if she’s willing to turn her back on her oldest friend. As she works on the story, she uncovers devastating truths about her own family history and loses someone she loves.
The book alternates between Riley’s and Jen’s perspectives, and they manage to stay out of each other’s way for the bulk of the novel. They exchange tense texts and emails and spot each other from afar, locked in a “weird, unspoken rift.” Jen agonizes over Riley’s loyalties, and Riley avoids her, unable to make up her mind. At one point, she wonders: “Are we fighting? Not exactly. I’m not mad at Jenny. Or maybe I am. I don’t know.” The characters comprehend and confront little about their own bond, and thus, so does the novel.
There are many intriguing facets of this relationship that might have further been explored, including the fraught, delicate class tensions between them. Jen never went to college and feels both pride and envy at Riley’s accomplishments; Riley paid for Jen’s last cycle of I.V.F. despite her distaste for Kevin. Instead, the novel gets bogged down in its reproduction of familiar lines about race: “Someone should pay,” one Black character says. “There are animals out there,” a white one says. Jen tells a horde of angry reporters, “My best friend is Black!” The characters dispense the usual talking points, and the dialogue yields evidence of a divided America for any reader who isn’t yet convinced.
In the thick of the commentary, and Jen and Riley’s back-and-forth, our sense of Justin and of his mother, Tamara, get short shrift. In one of the novel’s most poignant scenes, Tamara shares on air with Riley the things that made her son special. He refused to kill ants. He loved chicken tenders. His first word was “duck.” The details are endearing, vivid, but they aren’t enough to make Justin or his mother real, fully dimensional. He is a victim; she is a victim and survivor. Their losses are no more than the inciting incident for the drama between two friends, who by the end of the novel, have only just admitted there is a lot they need to talk about.