2018-06-14 / Opinions

Book Review

Alternate Side

A good novel doesn’t have to be a thriller or adventure story to hold our attention. Anna Quindlen has published nine novels, in addition to successful non-fiction books and columns. In Alternate Side, she gives us a “normal” family dealing with relationships, ambition, neighbors, and marriage, and we don’t want the story to stop.

Nora and Charlie have two children, a house in a desirable neighborhood in New York City, a dog, and are both gainfully employed. However, life is not always rosy. Nora has become impatient with Charlie over the years, and he feels inadequate, never having achieved the success he thought he was destined for. Nora understands his frustration (she directs a jewelry museum), but loves New York and resists his attempts to talk her into moving somewhere else.

She enjoys their neighbors, walks happily to work in all kinds of weather. Among minor annoyances, though, is their neighbor George, who has taken a self-appointed job of keeping everyone straight, including parking. There is a very small parking lot between two houses, and Charlie has been desperate for years to claim one of those spots. When he achieves that, he talks about his good fortune incessantly and seems to become a buddy with the irritating George who thinks he governs it.

Not enough to hang a plot on? Stick around. Quindlen manages. The children go off to college, Charlie’s boss, Bob Harris, wants Nora to leave her job and direct a museum he plans to establish. Nora, the kind of person who becomes a friend of the “homeless” man outside her museum and sides with the employees on the block instead of the affluent neighbors, knows that Charlie would be devastated if Harris, whom he wants but fails to impress, favors Nora instead.

That parking lot appears again. The entrance to it is very narrow, and when handyman Ricky inadvertently blocks it with his truck, he is attacked (with a golf club) by another infuriated owner, Jack. Ricky is severely injured and spends time in the hospital with broken bones. The local community knows that Jack loses his temper easily and is at fault but keep out of the case and the newspapers for his wife’s sake.

The press has a field day with the situation – a handyman unfairly injured by an over privileged business man. Though neither are publicly involved, Nora and Charlie have different points of view, and Nora realizes that this is a symptom of a growing and larger problem. She gets to know better a friend who is a surgeon and has “the kind of job that made Nora feel thoroughly ashamed of what she herself did for a living.”

Creating characters that we care about, whether or not we have much in common with them beyond our humanity, is an art, beautifully demonstrated in Alternate Side, available at the Mary Willis Library.

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