”Alternate Side” by Anna Quindlen, Random House, 304 pages.
Anna Quindlen is one of those authors most people (well, bookish people) recognize by name. I’m convinced it’s the Q.
If you’ve ever read Beverly Cleary’s delightful Beezus and Ramona books, you are likely to remember the sisters’ last name is Quimby, and what a wonderful last name that is.
But, I digress.
Quindlen began her career as a journalist in 1974 and in 1977 began her nearly 20-year relationship with The New York Times. She had a biweekly column in Newsweek until 2009, and she has published numerous works of non-fiction and even some children’s books.
She was hardly an unknown when she moved into fiction with her first book, “Object Lessons,” in 1991, followed by the semiautobiographical “One True Thing” in 1994. It was that book, and its movie version starring Meryl Streep, that dramatically increased Quindlen’s profile, especially as the movie was released in 1998, the year her third novel, “Black and Blue,” was published.
And then everything changed. “Black and Blue” received the coveted-by-everyone-not-named-Jonathan-Franzen prize that most authors can only dream of. No, not the Pulitzer Prize (though Quindlen won that for commentary in 1992. It’s OK. You can hate her a little.).
But the prestige (and the accompanying millions in sales) came with her book being an Oprah’s Book Club selection. If the Q didn’t do it for her, the power of the O certainly did.
“Black and Blue” was a good (not great) novel about an abused woman on the run with her young son. I’ve read a fair number of Quindlen’s books, and I’ve noticed, and appreciated, for the most part, that her protagonists are aging along with her — the young woman on the run in “Black and Blue,” a slightly older mother with teenage children in “Every Last One” (my favorite of her fiction) and a woman in her 50s with children out of the nest in “Alternate Side.”
Quindlen has continued to prove popular, though some of her books have been downright bad, far beneath her abilities (“Miller’s Valley”).
Sometimes, though, there’s been some hand-wringing about how to classify her books, and that has occasionally hurt her. Is she fiction? Or is she women’s fiction?
(If making this determination ever becomes my job, I’ll open a store called, Books & Comfy, Non-Sticky Chairs To Sit In While You Look At Books, Nice Dogs Welcome. It will be a long sign. But inside the store every book will be in alphabetical order with no genres. So it will be impossible to find anything, but won’t browsing be fun?)
Quindlen is universal fiction for any, all or no genders, and so is “Alternate Side.” Nora and Charlie Nolan live in Manhattan — this is a very Manhattan-centered book, and if that turns you off, this may not be for you.
But I would encourage you to try to look past the environment because this story is playing out everywhere, every day.
For Nora, there simply is no other place in the world. It was the city of her dreams as a child, and she got there as quickly as she could to make her life. Many of the other characters feel the same way, and not only is Manhattan their home, their special corner of it makes all the difference.
The Nolans and nearly all the characters who figure into the story live on an unusual block in the city — a dead-end street. There are stories written about it; people are flustered and fascinated by it.
Very few places ever come up for sale, so the residents all know each other in that close way longtime neighbors do. They might not all like each other, but they are a unit.
Quindlen skillfully introduces the readers to them so we catch enough of each to grasp their characters, but not too much. And we often get those glimpses through the servants that they share.
As real-estate prices surge, as children leave home, as beloved dogs die (the folks on this block adore their dogs) and as the city changes around them, Nora is not immune to the differences.
But she remains enamored with her home. Charlie, though, is exhausted. New York is a young man’s game, and he doesn’t want to play anymore.
And then, suddenly, an act of unimaginable violence takes place. It sets neighbor against neighbor, puts friends and even spouses at odds.
“It was the first time anyone could remember the block erupting in this kind of discord. It had always protected its own, the facing houses seeming to agree, cornice to cornice, window to window, that intimacy and privacy could exist together.”
And all of the residents seem to be caught in the aftermath in some way.
Or are they? Was this just the excuse people needed to change their lives?
As Nora reflects on marriage, “When people divorced, she was often surprised, and when they stayed together, sometimes more so. She thought that people sought marriage because it meant they could put aside the mascara, the bravado, the good clothes, the company manners, and be themselves. But what that seemed to mean was that they didn’t try at all. It seemed foolish, fifteen years in, to lean across the breakfast table and say, By the way, are you happy? Do you like this life?”
And she doesn’t even seem clear on whether she wants to try anymore, either.
“Alternate Side” begins with a quote from Henny Youngman, “The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret,” and the book provides no answers.
“‘It was what happened on the block.’ Sherry said, a statement, not a question, and Nora didn’t even bother to disagree. ‘It changed everything.’ ‘I don’t know,’ Nora said, ‘It feels to me like everything changed but we’re all somehow still the same.’”
So, was it the event? Can something not directly connected to one’s life change it all? Or is it just that a lifelong marriage is an outdated notion now that we live past an average age of 40? Or do we simply stop trying, as Nora hypothesizes?
“Alternate Side” isn’t my all-time favorite Quindlen book, but I kept thinking about it and the nature of marriage for days after. I’m glad she’s growing older along with me.