Sometimes I cringe when I see the comparisons in publishers’ press releases but in Anna Quindlen’s case Scribner are spot on with Elizabeth Strout and Ann Tyler. She also shares with Strout a far smaller following here in the UK than she deserves, although I can happily put that in the past tense for Strout these days. I’d love to think that Alternate Side will do the same for Quindlen as My Name is Lucy Barton did for Strout. With its perceptive exploration of middle-aged marriage, it inhabits quintessential Quindlen territory.
Charlie is cock-a-hoop having secured a space in the parking lot of the Manhattan cul-de-sac where he and Nora have lived for a couple of decades. They’re a fortunate couple: owners of a coveted brownstone bought when such a thing was affordable; successful in their careers; parents of twins set on the road to a fulfilling adulthood. Yet there’s the odd niggle – Charlie would prefer to be a large fish in a much smaller pool than New York, Nora finds herself going elsewhere in her head when he talks about work and she’s not entirely happy in her own job as the development officer of a rich woman’s vanity project. Theirs is a tight-knit community, tolerant of George, its self-appointed overseer, who’s given to pushing instructions through their letter boxes about what other residents should and should not do. This privileged set of householders looks to the likes of Ricky, the handyman, to keep things ticking over smoothly. One day a shocking act of violence rocks the street, setting off fault lines in relationships that will undermine some irretrievably.
I read Miller’s last novel on holiday a few weeks ago, packing it safe in the knowledge that it would justify its weight. H read it too and, to my delight, is now a convert. Much as I enjoyed Miller’s Valley, Alternate Side is even better. Quindlen tells her story from Nora’s perspective with characteristic wit and keen observation, clicking marriage, privilege and the slide into middle age into focus.
The truth was that some of their marriages were like balloons: a few went suddenly pop, but more often than not the air slowly leaked out until it was a sad, wrinkled little thing with no lift to it anymore
Nora is a sympathetic character, acutely aware of her own privilege yet not entirely understanding how that might be perceived. She knows that without Ricky or Charity, their housekeeper, things would fall apart but she’s brought up short when faced with unease and anger when she steps over the line into their territory. There’s a pleasing thread of wry humour running through this novel which is also a love letter to New York, laced with a certain ruefulness at its makeover:
The city had become like that edgy girl in college, all wild hacked hair and leather, who showed up at reunion with a blow-dried bob and a little black dress, her nose-piercing closed up as if it had never existed
Another witty, absorbing and intelligent piece of fiction from Quindlen, then. If you haven’t yet read her work, I hope you’ll give her try.