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A Window Opens


A Window Opens

Having it all (husband, kids, satisfying work): fantasy or reachable goal? This dilemma has been the stuff of popular fiction for quite some time. I reviewed Allison Pearson’s I DON’T KNOW HOW SHE DOES IT for in 2003; more recently, I dipped into Jennifer Weiner’s ALL FALL DOWN, wherein a frazzled working mother/daughter of aging parents takes to prescription painkillers.

In her debut novel, A WINDOW OPENS --- which is smart, honest, alternately touching and funny --- Elisabeth Egan, the books editor at Glamour magazine, uses her inside knowledge of publishing to add an additional layer to the working-mom genre. Alice Pearse (cf. Allison Pearson: accident or homage?) is a 30-something mother of three living in a New Jersey suburb. She has a part-time job she loves at You magazine, a traditional women’s publication that sounds like an amalgam of Glamour, Self and Mademoiselle (where I was an editor), and describes herself as “the tiniest bit smug” about the balance between home and work.

But all that changes when her lawyer husband fails to make partner and decides to start his own firm. They need more income --- fast. So she snags a position at Scroll, part of a Cleveland-based retail empire, MainStreet, known for high-end malls disguised as small-town shopping centers: equal parts Amazon (Egan, I learned today from the New York Times, worked briefly in its publishing division), Walmart, Barnes & Noble and Microsoft. The plan is for Scroll to unroll a chain of luxurious book “lounges” that will “reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee.” Alice’s job is to curate the eBook collection therein, as well as to act as a “ScrollCrier,” touting the project to her contacts in the publishing community.

", honest, alternately touching and funny... [Egan] lives in New Jersey with her husband and three kids, and ends her author’s acknowledgments with a nod to someone who sounds a lot like her father. This gives her a handle on the intimate details of family life..."

Alice has been a word person practically from birth --- the highlight of her day is reading aloud to the kids --- and at first this project sounds plausible, almost inviting; it even involves a few of what the Scrollites contemptuously call “carbon-based” books as opposed to the electronic kind. (Each employee gets a first edition of his or her “dream book”; Alice’s, tellingly, is A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN.)

Egan has a great deal of mordant fun with Scroll; it is a fascinatingly awful --- yet not too far-fetched --- creation. Our hearts are with Alice as she stumbles and fakes her way through a new world of jargon and marketing protocol. We are rooting for her to succeed, yet when the company changes tack and partners with a video-game outfit, soon we’re wishing she would leave. Alice is appalled by the games not only on principle (“We’re readers in this house”) but because she and her family were living in Battery Park City on 9/11, and some of the games involve sending planes into tall buildings.

Things are not so hot on the home front, either. Alice’s underemployed husband, Nicholas, is drinking; her relationship with the kids is suffering; and, worst of all, her beloved father is dying. This former lawyer, a wonderful character --- perhaps the best in the book --- lost his vocal cords to cancer some years ago. He was furious, but he adjusted, speaking in “a Darth Vader voice” through an electric wand held to his neck and becoming a “ferocious” texter, emailer and social media participant, adept at acronyms (TTYL, CU!, LOL, even WTF). Moreover, he believes in women “doing it all” and cheers Alice’s new job (“I raised you to bring home the bacon!” reads one of his texts).

Egan weaves Alice’s history into the present-day plot with cannily placed flashbacks, so by the time her father’s cancer comes back, we know the man and his qualities well enough to find his decline excruciating. My mother died of cancer, and I can testify that Egan articulates the unbearable and the unspeakable with sensitivity and a bit of black humor --- from poignant scenes with Alice’s parents at Memorial Sloan Kettering to a list of “Things Not to Say to Someone Whose Parent Has Cancer” (number four: Has he tried meditation?), from a heartbreaking glimpse of her father being washed by an aide to a mordant comment on her mother’s stoicism (“Like my dad, she avoided talking about her feelings the way most people avoid root canal or the DMV”). I identified utterly with Alice’s guilty wish that she knew how long her father was going to live: “The uncertainty is exhausting. Do you put your life on hold or do you keep going…?”

I suspect that A WINDOW OPENS parallels Egan’s own life rather closely --- and not just in terms of her résumé. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and three kids, and ends her author’s acknowledgments with a nod to someone who sounds a lot like her father. This gives her a handle on the intimate details of family life but also makes her cautious. With Scroll, she lets her imagination rip; with the Pearse family, not so much. The children are more adorable than bratty. Nobody has an affair or lifts a hand in anger. Money isn’t particularly short, there is a nanny who could give Mary Poppins a run for her money, and Nicholas and Alice mend their marital issues in a single Hollywood-esque reconciliation scene.

But it’s no hardship to spend time with these eminently likable characters, even if we pretty much know early on how things are going to turn out. Besides, there is a more serious point here: Once Alice “onboards” at Scroll (yep, that’s how they talk there), she is not only coping with a desperate shortage of time and energy but straddling an ever-growing gap of culture and values. She finds herself checking her phone when her father is in Urgent Care. She misses the moment that her youngest daughter learns to read. She’s impatient with her older daughter’s preteen angst. She almost bails on a school concert because she stays too long at the Scroll holiday party. In short, she loses perspective.

Don’t think, however, that A WINDOW OPENS is some sort of conservative polemic that suggests women with children should just stay home. Not at all. Rather, it implies that there are no easy answers for working mothers --- which, these days, means most mothers. No one “has it all,” and neat terms like multitasking and leaning in barely begin to cover the conflicting demands that assault Alice; her reality is a lot messier than that. She can only do the best she can and try to be there when it really counts. There’s no doubt that Alice deserves a figurative room of her own. Yet that room, Egan seems to be saying, should be part of a larger structure that allows time and space for family, for grief, for love.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on August 28, 2015

A Window Opens
by Elisabeth Egan

  • Publication Date: July 5, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster
  • ISBN-10: 1501105450
  • ISBN-13: 9781501105456