Book Review: Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

There is something about a New York novel – and Alternate Side could be the quintessential New York novel – that always seems to appeal. Maybe it’s because New York is one of those cities that people dream of calling home (like Paris or London, for that matter) – the culture, the food, the parties the opportunities…

And so it is for Nora Nolan, who turns up in New York after college, and here meets Charlie. Alternate Side is partly the story of their marriage, and their finest achievements as a couple – their twins, Rachel and Oliver. And then there’s their house. The Nolans live on a quiet block of infinitely expensive Victorian houses, with a dead-end which makes it even more of an enclave.

They attend parties and barbecues with their neighbours, watch each other’s children grow up, use the same handyman: Puerto Rican Ricky from the Bronx. They all have nannies and housekeepers – for the Nolans, it’s Charity from Jamaica. And to give Nora credit, she does sometimes feel conflicted that all the people she knows have immigrant hired help, black or hispanic, who come from poor neighbourhoods.

Their children, their dogs, and housing prices: the holy trinity of conversation for New Yorkers of a certain sort. For the men, there were also golf courses and wine lists to be discussed; for the women, dermatologists.”

The story begins with Charlie beaming with glee, having finally been offered a space in the street’s only parking lot – an empty section which once contained a house and now has room for a select half dozen cars. As you can imagine, these spaces are highly sought after. When a violent incident occurs, involving Ricky and one of the Nolans’ more insufferable neighbours, things are never quite the same for anybody. Suddenly the gaps between the haves and the have-nots are obvious to all, not just Nora, as issues of racism and entitlement in connection with the block make the news.

Alternate Side is about keeping up appearances, as well as that old adage, be careful what you wish for, you might just get it. Everything seems to fall into Nora’s lap – her job setting up a jewellery museum (only in New York, right?) is one of a string of interesting work opportunities that always seem to come her way. Her marriage: Charlie appeared just at the right time when Nora was suffering from a broken heart. What is it Nora really wants? That is the question.

“People go through life thinking they’re making decisions, when they’re really just making plans, which is not the same thing at all.”

The story though is very much in the telling. Anna Quindlen writes with both wit and wisdom and I found myself chuckling at the snappy dialogue and Nora’s wry outlook, her interactions with Phil, the panhandler who takes up space on the path outside the jewellery museum, the obnoxious notes distributed by neighbour George about rules on use of the parking lot. There is so much to enjoy here as well as a story to make you think – and all set in New York. I loved it. A four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: On Turpentine Lane by Elinor Lipman

The genre of On Turpentine Lane a little hard to define. In the end I decided it was part chick-lit, part comedy of manners and part mystery – in this case a delicious concoction, particularly when seasoned with Lipman’s sharp and witty writing.

The story is told from the point of view of Faith Frankel, who has returned from the big city to live in her home town and work at her old school, writing thank you notes to sponsors. I didn’t know there were jobs like that, but there are others in her department who are tasked with benefactors of a higher order, including Nick, her office-mate and fellow conspirator.

While Faith’s fiancé is off walking across America to find himself, she buys a cute but run-down cottage on Turpentine Lane, while said fiancé posts pictures on social media of himself with attractive women. Meanwhile, Faith’s parents are having marital problems, her father leaving his job in insurance to reinvent himself as a painter – specialising in Chagall knock-offs personalised for the buyer with images of their children or pets. Then there’s the worry of Faith’s brother, who has never managed to feel confidant dating new women after divorcing his faithless ex.

Mystery arrives in the form of some abandoned junk found in Faith’s attic: an old cradle and pictures of twin babies labelled with their birthdates and the date two weeks later, the time they were ‘taken’. The assumption that she is looking at pictures of two dead babies and stories of how the previous occupant murdered her husbands sets Faith on a quest of discovery. As you can imagine, she doesn’t feel all that comfortable alone in her home anymore, but help comes in the form of amiable Nick, kicked out by his girlfriend for failing to propose and needing a room.

Throw in some office politics and there’s a lot going on for poor beleaguered Faith, and the plot just crackles along. The bonus of the sparky, intelligent writing means there’s a lot to enjoy. Elinor Lipman has written a dozen novels – On Turpentine Lane comes in at number eleven – and I am happy at the thought of checking out the others. If they are half as good as this one they are worth a look. The reading of this audiobook by Mia Barron was suitably bright and had me chuckling as I listened. Four out of five from me.

Audio Review: The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

The Arrangement follows the lives of happily married but struggling Owen and Lucy, two New Yorkers who have moved out of the city to small-town Beekman. Here they have become ensconced in the local community – helping out at the school, fundraising, barbecues with friends, and gossip. They have a son, Wyatt, who’s on the autistic spectrum and that means Lucy is always tired and it’s hard to find a caregiver for a bit of respite.

When friends over for dinner, and quite a bit of wine, reveal they are planning an open marriage, Owen and Lucy balk at the thought. Somehow the idea festers and the couple agree to give the concept a trial of six months. Something to nip any wandering thoughts in the bud and make them a stronger, happier couple, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s what I liked about the book:

  • The novel is very funny. It captures all the silliness of modern life – the keeping up with the Joneses, the guilt trips over daft things, the pretensions and fads.
  • The characters of Owen and Lucy are very believable and likeable. Their relationship seems strong. But the result of the ‘arrangement’ is that Owen behaves like a young bloke having a final fling/s while Lucy runs the risk of falling in love with someone else. Well, what do you know?
  • There are some very funny supporting characters: Izzy, Owen’s bat-shit crazy girlfriend who becomes more and more demanding; Sunny Bang, Lucy’s tell-it-like-is Korean friend who finds Lucy a ‘partner’; the billionaire with the trophy wife who forgot to have her sign a pre-nup; the hefty beekeeper who sat on a small dog while on a date – an event which caused him to vanish and change his life entirely.
  • There are some hilarious scenes: such as when Owen is caught depositing Izzy’s used plastic bags at the supermarket recycling bin by a sanctimonious neighbour and has to pretend they are his; a blessing of the animals at church when a dog monsters one of Wyatt’s chickens and the llamas bolt into the churchyard.
  • The natural dialogue and its snappy New York ring.

“I think it’s a huge myth that women can’t have meaningless sex,” said Victoria. “You should see these millennials in my office. All they do is have sex, all the time. The girls, the guys. They’re not worried about getting AIDS or getting pregnant or being called a slut. They’re all vociferously opposed to slut-shaming in any form.”

“Slut-shaming?” Owen asked, rotating the cheese plate and slicing off a hunk of Jasper Hill cheddar.

“Yeah,” said Victoria. “It’s a thing.”

  • The reader Ellen Archer has done an amazing job of giving life to all the characters and making them sound different without sounding ridiculous. Men and women alike. I really loved her Sunny Bang. I am not sure I would have enjoyed the novel nearly so much if it wasn’t for Archer’s performance. I imagine if I read the book in print form, I would be looking at a three-star read, maybe three-and-a-half; as an audio-book, it happily earns an extra star. Another reason to give audiobooks a go.