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Alternate Side

Review

Alternate Side

Anna Quindlen is one of those writers who has always felt known to me. Even before she embarked on fiction --- left me stunned and tearful with her powerful novels about a mother’s death (ONE TRUE THING, 1994) and domestic abuse (BLACK AND BLUE, 1998) --- I was a devoted reader of her New York Times columns, “Life in the 30’s” and the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Public & Private.”

Now she has set her ninth novel, ALTERNATE SIDE, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where I live. Unlike her protagonist, Nora Nolan, I do not own a house, dwell on a dead-end block, employ a nanny or handyman, or have a car (to any New Yorker who does, alternate side instantly summons up parking, and the rules that require shifting from one side of the street to the other to make way for street cleaners and snowplows). Still, reading it, I wondered if Quindlen and I were neighbors, if I might bump into her at the local Walgreens or Starbucks.

ALTERNATE SIDE is about many things: an urban community as close-knit as a small town, a violent incident that lays bare the chasm between privilege and poverty, a dying marriage. It is also an affectionate yet acerbic love letter to New York City. That’s a lot, maybe too much for one novel. Plot and character get a bit lost in a torrent of quasi-anthropological observations and digressions. Yet Quindlen’s trademark wit, insight and warmth make it a sympathetic and rewarding story.

For the first 100 pages, nothing much happens. We get acquainted with Nora and her family (her sad sack husband, Charlie; college-age twins, Ollie and Rachel; patient dog, Homer). Soon enough, we learn that the entire block (the owners, not the renters, who lack stature and staying power) is served by a Dominican handyman who fixes anything and everything --- “Ricky had made himself essential. They had all made themselves helpless” --- and ultimately becomes the linchpin of the story.

"Quindlen’s trademark wit, insight and warmth make [ALTERNATE SIDE] a sympathetic and rewarding story.... [I]t's a fine read, both clever and poignant."

I won’t describe the precise nature of the incident that victimizes Ricky and gets the book in gear. But the different versions (“alternate sides”) of what happened and what it meant --- from Charlie’s claim that it was an accident to the twins’ bald accusation (“This is all because Ricky is brown and poor”) to the usual New York chorus of screaming tabloid headlines --- divide the residents of the block and eventually splinter the Nolan family.

It is both the charm of ALTERNATE SIDE and its downfall that even after the incident and its consequences, Quindlen frequently breaks away from the narrative to delve into subjects ranging from rats to remodeling, dogs to dinner parties, cooking services to memorial services, twins to generational time zones (“Nora couldn’t get used to the notion that when she was asleep, her children were awake, and vice versa”). She’s like a brilliant conversationalist who wanders constantly from her topic, and her excursions, however diverting, make the novel feel episodic and leach momentum from the plot.

In staking out this semi-satirical BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES-type territory, Quindlen wins points for cool commentary but loses emotional resonance. Nora is just about the only character who isn’t a type. Smart but discontented women and anxious, angry, career-frustrated men abound. There’s the college boyfriend who turned out to be gay, the no-nonsense Jamaican nanny with a heart of gold, the over-ambitious office assistant (“a heat-seeking missile”), the therapist married to a guy with anger management issues, the bratty teens who surprise her with flashes of wisdom.

Nora herself, with her Ephronesque voice (surely the twinned first names are no accident), makes up for a lot. “I’m a New Yorker. Cynicism is my religion,” she declares at one point, but that’s not entirely true. She has a pretty healthy social conscience and manages to be both ironic and compassionate about where she sits on the city’s class ladder. When she ventures to Ricky’s neighborhood in the Bronx to lend him a humidifier for his sick son, she’s shocked to realize how different he was on his home turf: a “buoyant character” who practically danced down the street, not “the leaden facsimile he took downtown each day for work.”

Nora’s relationship with her daughter is Quindlen at her best. Rachel steals her mother’s clothes (“Sometimes when Nora bought a blouse she could almost feel it slipping from her shopping bag directly into Rachel’s duffel”), complains about being grilled “like a criminal” when Nora asks an innocent question, instructs her not to text at 8 in the morning (“My phone is under my pillow”). Yet there’s a deep connection here. “Her daughter could be combative, egocentric, impossible. But she could read Nora’s voice as no one else could, even Charlie. Especially Charlie.”

Speaking of Charlie, the decline of that relationship also rings true, though it is fairly predictable (as early as page 15, Nora likens the marriage to “the AA prayer: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,’ Or at least to move into a zone in which I so don’t care anymore and scarcely notice”). Stronger than her love for Charlie or even the kids is Nora’s sheer, possessive passion (“primal and chemical”) for the city she lives in, which is the heart of the novel. Although New York (and Nora herself) is no longer as funky and hungry and grungy as when she arrived --- its “rough edges and quirks sanded down” --- she adores it still: the Hudson River, the hot dogs and gyros, the people who “rant on the street,” the lady who feeds the geese and gulls.

The changes the city goes through mirror Nora’s own epiphanies, losses and evolution. In the end, she reinvents herself. Charlie moves out; the kids move on. She changes jobs. The house is sold, changing her from owner to renter (“Nora didn’t need a handyman, not anymore. She had a super instead”), with a manageably sized apartment and the impractical white couch she’d always wanted.

ALTERNATE SIDE may lack the visceral impact of Quindlen’s other fiction, but it’s a fine read, both clever and poignant. Nora is a woman worth knowing. I can’t help wishing she’d move in next door.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on March 23, 2018

Alternate Side
by Anna Quindlen

  • Publication Date: March 20, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812996062
  • ISBN-13: 9780812996067