Peter Lovenheim lives in a spacious house on a quiet suburban street near Rochester, N.Y. His neighbors are doctors and executives -- he knows that much about them, but for years he didn't know much more. The people in his exclusive neighborhood tend to keep to themselves.
When one of the doctors is murdered by her husband, Lovenheim is struck with a deep sadness and a startling sense of guilt. Who on the block had known that Renan Wills was in such a terrible marriage? Who on the block even knew Renan Wills at all? If she had had friends in the neighborhood, might she have had somewhere to run that night? Might her life somehow have been saved?
It is hard not to be charmed by what Lovenheim does next. He decides to get to know his neighbors, and he decides to do so the way children get to know one another: By hanging out. By sleeping over.
"What would it take, I wondered, to penetrate the barriers between us?" he writes. "I thought about childhood sleepovers and the insight I used to get from waking up inside a friend's home."
It is not a perfect solution. Many neighbors turn him down. Some who agree clearly do so out of loneliness -- one is a retired doctor whose wife has died; another is a divorced woman with cancer.
What is interesting about this book is his discovery that the absence of community seems to be on everyone's mind; neighbor after neighbor brings it up. "No one cares," says Lou Guzzetta, the retired doctor. "No one wants to be bothered. There are not neighbors in the truest sense of the world. There are no neighbors here."
Says another neighbor, a hard-charging young woman named Deb, "the thing is, the people on this street, I don't think they want to know you." These busy, driven people reveal lives that are shot through with a sense of isolation.
Community space, Lovenheim observes, has migrated from neighborhoods -- which often lack parks or other central meeting places -- to bookstores, coffee shops, country clubs and the Internet. The resultant void means an abundance of privacy, but no intimacy. "We move in isolation from each other," a neighbor named Bill says. "It's easy to behave [badly] to strangers."
Lovenheim's mission isn't just to get to know his neighbors; it is to try, gently, to bring them together. In some cases, he succeeds. When Patricia, the radiologist with cancer, needs someone to drive her to the doctor, Lovenheim introduces her to Lou Guzzetta, and a kind of friendship springs up.
It is hard to read this book and not think of your own neighborhood, your own street. Who do you know? Everyone? Anyone? No one at all? Dog-walkers, one neighbor observed, usually know the names of each other's dogs, but not the names of each other. I thought of walking my own dogs down my own St. Paul street and realized sadly that this is often true.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune books editor.