Tag Archives: Alternate Side

Five Novels I’ve Read Set in New York

Rather like Berlin, a New York setting is catnip for me. I only need to spot it in a novel’s blurb and it’s on my list which is not always a good thing. I’ve only visited the city once but I think it’s more its almost mythical aura that attracts me rather than the actuality not that I didn’t love it when I was there. You can be sure that there’ll be a Berlin post in this series at some stage but for now, Cover imagehere are five of my favourite novels set in New York City, a couple with links to reviews on this blog.

Jonathan Galassi’s Muse is all about the New York book world, neatly satisfying two obsessions for me. Paul Dukach conceives a lifelong passion for Ida Perkins’ poetry as a teenager. Thanks to the well-connected Morgan, Paul finds his way into publishing world, soon gaining a reputation for his sharp editorial eye. He’s offered a job by Homer Stern, the louche, foul-mouthed owner of one of the city’s two most revered literary publishing houses, its lists stuffed full of Nobel Prize winners, but it’s Homer’s rival, Sterling Wainwright, who has an iron grip on the rights to Perkins’ work. By the end of the book Paul will have fulfilled his wildest dreams but not without a twinge or two of conscience. A poet and one of the head honchos at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Galassi takes us into the world of literary publishing, replete with gossipy detail and sharply observed satire while posing questions about the nature of literary fame. A smart, funny novel written by a man who knows a thing or three about Paul’s world.

I fell in love with Brightness Falls to such an extent that I remember sending H off for a walk into the lovely Corsican maquis on his own so that I could finish it. It’s the first in a trilogy which continued with the disappointing The Good Life and finished with Bright, Precious, Days. All three follow Corinne and Russell Calloway, a glittering New York couple. To their friends, theirs is the perfect marriage but when Russell is caught up in an audacious plan to take over the publishing company in which he’s the rising editorial star, things begin to fall apart. The adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere of the deal takes its toll on both Russell and Corrine, just as the excesses of the ’80s have on many others in New York City, from their friend Jeff, now in detox, to the homeless crack addicts on every street corner. The reckoning finally comes on 19 October 1987 when the bubble bursts with the Wall Street crash. Tom Wolfe’s potboiler The Bonfire of the Vanities was often cited as the quintessential yuppie novel but for me Brightness Falls summed up the folly of the ’80s very much better and with a great deal more humanity.Cover image

Beginning in early 2001 Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children inhabits similar literary territory to Brightness Falls presenting a portrait of New York through the eyes of three thirty-year-old friends living in Manhattan. All of them once thought they had a bright future but none seems to have fulfilled that promise. Marina has spent the advance she was awarded and has returned home to live with her parents. Julius is subsidised by his boyfriend having failed to support himself with his reviews. Danielle is unemployed and involved with two men, one of whom is Marina’s literary critic father. The attacks of 9/11 throw all the cards up into the air for these three as it did for so many. Published several years after the atrocity, Messud’s novel captures the city both before and after this cataclysmic event in an immersive, satisfying novel.

Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side takes us from literary New York to residential Manhattan where Charlie is cock-a-hoop having secured a space in the parking lot of the cul-de-sac where he and Nora have lived for a couple of decades. Theirs is a tightly knit community, tolerant of George, its self-appointed overseer, 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. With its perceptive exploration of middle-aged marriage, Alternate Side inhabits quintessential Quindlen territory. Overly ambitious comparisons abound in publishers’ blurbs, but Quindlen’s writing really does rank alongside Elizabeth Strout’s and AnnTyler’s for me. If you haven’t yet read her work, I hope you’ll give her try.

Cover imageKathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk takes us on a tour of Manhattan on New Year’s Eve in 1984 in the company of an 85-year-old who arrived in New York in the ’30s, beginning her career as a lowly copywriter for Macy’s and ending it as the world’s highest paid woman in advertising. Lillian’s evening has not gone as planned. Instead she decides to go for a stroll, telling us her life story as she walks and through it the story of half a century of New York’s history, encompassing the Jazz Age, the Great Depression and AIDS. I loved this novel which is, apparently, based on the story of Margaret Fishback. Lillian is a wonderfully witty and engaging character. Rooney’s book has a charmingly old-fashioned feel about it which seems a satisfying note to end on for me.

What about you – any favourite New York City novels you’d like to recommend?

Paperbacks to Look Out for in August 2019

After a tempting array of new August titles I’m sorry to say that only a handful of paperbacks appeal, two of which I’ve read already. I was far from convinced that I’d like let alone love Robbie Arnott’s Flames which is quite some way out of my usual literary territory but it ended up as one of my 2018 favourites, even making it on to my Booker wish list. Arnott’s debut begins with the reappearance of Edith McAllister, two days dead. The McAllister women have a history of resurrection, appearing covered in barnacles or vegetation after they’ve been cremated, only to burst into flames a few days later. It comes as no surprise, then, when Edith repeats the pattern but her son is determined that his sister will escape the same fate. Wacky as that sounds, Arnott’s striking novel drew me in with its gorgeous writing.

Back to more straightforward fiction with Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side, a perceptive exploration of middle-aged marriage which 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 along with a privileged set of householders who  look 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. 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. Quindlen’s fiction seems much over-looked here in the UK which is a shame. I’d rank her alongside Elizabeth Strout.

We’re staying in New York for Dana Czapnik’s The Falconer much praised by both Salman Rushdie and Claire Messud which seems a slightly odd combination. Czapnik’s debut follows seventeen-year-old Lucy Adler, a basketball star in the making. Less brash than she seems, Lucy falls into unrequited love with her best friend and teammate then finds herself drawn into the bohemian world of two women artists. ‘In her hit US debut, Dana Czapnik memorably captures the voice of a young woman in the first flush of freedom searching for an authentic way to live and love’ say the publishers which sounds just the ticket.

Moving on to Thailand with Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s debut, Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which tells the story of a disparate set of the city’s inhabitants through the history of one building, A nineteenth century missionary longs for New England; a 1970s jazz pianist attempts to subdue the building’s ghosts and a young woman gives swimming lessons in a near-future submerged Bangkok, apparently. I’ve always had a soft spot for this kind of structure but I’m slightly deterred by the dystopian thread.

Eoin McNamee’s The Vogue  sounds a little Gothic rather than dystopian. In 1944, two teenagers silently dance in an aerodrome. She draws the outlines of their footwork in eyebrow pencil; he loses their bet. Decades later, a body is found. ‘Set against an eerie landscape, awash with secrets, The Vogue is a grimly poetic dance through the intertwined stories of a deeply religious community, an abandoned military base, and a long-shuttered children’s Care Home’ say the publishers promisingly. Anna Burns is a big fan, apparently.

I wasn’t overly impressed by David Szalay’s All That Man Is which never seemed to coalesce as a novel but that hasn’t stopped me from casting an eye over Turbulence, described by his publishers as a short story sequence, which follows twelve characters en route across the globe. ‘Szalay deftly depicts the ripple effect that, knowingly or otherwise, a person’s actions have on those around them, and invites us to consider our own place in the vast and delicately balanced network of human relationships that is the world we live in today’ according to the blurb. It’s the idea of the journey that attracts me to this one.

That’s it for August’s paperback preview. A click on the title of one of the first two will take you to my review and to a more detailed synopsis for the rest should you want to know more. New titles can be found here and here.

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.

Books to Look Out for in August 2018: Part Two

Cover imageIn contrast to the first batch, this selection of August titles has its feet planted firmly in the US. Anna Quindlen’s Alternate Side is set in New York City where Nora and her husband live happily until a terrible incident takes place, shaking Nora’s confidence and dividing the neighbourhood. ‘With an unerring and acute eye that captures beautifully the snap and crackle of modern life, Anna Quindlen explores what it means to be a mother, a wife and a woman at a moment of reckoning’ according to the blurb. Quindlen has always seemed somewhat underrated here in the UK.

I very much enjoyed Seth Greenland’s I Regret Everything a few years back so have hopes for The Hazards of Good Fortune. Set during the Obama presidency, it’s about a wealthy philanthropist who tries to lead a moral life but finds himself entangled in a prosecution which will have dramatic consequences in terms of race and privilege. ‘At times shocking, but always recognizable, this captivating tale explores the aftermath of unforgivable errors and the unpredictability of the court of public opinion. With a brilliant eye for character, Greenland creates a story that mixes biting humor with uncomfortable truth’ say the publishers.

I’ve never got around to reading Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity, daunted by its door-Cover imagestopping size, but that hasn’t stopped Lost Empress catching my eye. Nina Gill is taken aback when her brother inherits the football team she’s quietly been keeping afloat. Meanwhile, Nono DeAngeles is setting about an audacious crime having deliberately got himself banged up in Rikers Prison.Without knowing it, or ever having met, Nina and Nuno have already had a profound effect on each other’s lives. As his bid for freedom and her bid for sporting immortality reach crisis point, their stories converge in the countdown to an epic conclusion’ say the publishers which sounds intriguing although it’s another doorstopper.

Cherise Wolas’ The Family Tabor sounds a little more straightforward. Harry Tabor is about to be honoured as Man of the Decade in recognition of his work with the many Jewish refugees he’s helped to settle in America. Years ago, Harry uprooted his own family taking them across the States from Connecticut to the South West. ‘Wolas examines the five members of the Tabor family as they prepare to celebrate Harry. Through each of their points of view, we see family members whose lives are built on lies, both to themselves and to others, and how these all come crashing down during a seventy-two-hour period’ according to the blurb which sounds highly entertaining.

J M Holmes’ How Are You Going to Save Yourself is about four young men who’ve grown up together but have drifted apart in adulthood as they try to cope with society’s expectations, family pressures and their own self-images. Described as ‘both humorous and heart-breaking’ it’s ‘a timely debut about sex, race, family and friendship’, apparently which sounds good to me.

Cover imageMy last choice for August is from the author of a book I enjoyed very much: Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan all about black American jazz musicians in 1940s Europe. Washington Black sounds very different. The eponymous eleven-year-old is chosen as a personal servant to one of the brothers who have taken over a Barbados sugar plantation, a man obsessed with the idea of flying which results in disaster for him. ‘From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life’ according to the blurb. That jacket alone should win a prize.

That’s it for August’s new novels. A click on any that have caught your eye will take you to a more detailed synopsis, and If you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks shortly…