Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen: If you like Elizabeth Strout or Ann Tyler…

Cover imageSometimes 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.

14 thoughts on “Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen: If you like Elizabeth Strout or Ann Tyler…”

  1. I’ve had this for a while but haven’t got round to it. The premise sounds good but I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about another upper-middle class American couple in crisis. You’ve made me think again as it sounds like the author is casting a critical eye over that world.

    1. Yes, I’d say that’s true, Kate. Quindlen deftly explores the chasm between those who live in the cul-de-sac and those who make their lives run smoothly through Nora. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  2. I’m another Strout and Tyler fan, so can’t wait to try this one. I must confess that I had not even heard of her before reading your review and was interested to read your comments about being underrated in this country. Perhaps blog-power will be able to change that. 🙂

    1. Lol – I have just seen from my TBR list that I added Quindlen’s Miller’s Valley after your travel post, but clearly did not register her name. So that’s two of her books to prioritise now!!

  3. I remember reading an ARC of Black and Blue years ago and thinking it would be rather a forgettable page-turner but now, so many years later, I still flash back to some of the scenes and emotions she captured therein. I’m glad to hear that her more recent publications continue to be of such fine quality. Is there one in particular, more recent than B&B *grins*, that you would recommend? I think the only other one I’ve read was a slim volume of non-fiction about reading.

  4. I love Anna Quindlen! I discovered her about 20 years ago when I was visiting relatives in America and she wrote a weekly column in the paper. Love her books, but haven’t read this one…………..yet!

    1. Isn’t her writing great? So perceptive and with such a lovely wry humour about it, too. I’d love to see her appreciated in the way Elizabeth Strout finally is here now.

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