Tag Archives: New York in fiction

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.

Tuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss: Adventures in the New York art world

Cover imageWhat to read when you have a house full of carpenters and decorators? Even when they’re as polite, careful and quiet as they can be, they’re still disruptive. With the good old British rain pelting down outside there’s not much else to do but retreat to the one room whose windows are not being replaced, stick some earplugs in and find something that looks both absorbing and unchallenging. Molly Prentiss’ debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 with its catnip period New York setting seemed just the ticket.

It begins on New Year’s Eve, 1979. Parties are being held all over the city, two of them setting up connections which will play out through the rest of the novel. At one, thrown by a doyenne of the New York art world, James, an art critic for the New York Times who experiences the world in a multitude of trippy sensations and colours, is in attendance with his pregnant wife, Marge, the breadwinner of the two. He catches a glimpse of Raul, an Argentinian artist whose sister we’ve already met on her way to a political meeting in their home country in the novel’s prologue. James is momentarily distracted by Raul as is the party’s hostess who thinks she spots a great talent in the making. Raul takes himself off to a bar where he meets Lucy, a beautiful young woman from small town Idaho, new to the city, persuading her to come back with him to his squat where a much more uproarious party is in full swing. It’s a fateful night for all of them: Marge suffers an accident; Lucy falls head over heels in love; James’ fleeting sight of Raul in striking colours is the last time his synaesthesia will register, robbing him of his celebrated, idiosyncratic way of experiencing art.

Prentiss tells her story from the point of view of her three main protagonists in turn, bringing them closer together as their paths crisscross the New York art world. The novel hinges on fate and coincidence: when James wakes up to find his world drained of colour, he’s devastated but a chance viewing of Raul’s portrait of Lucy reawakens his synapses, leading him to make a terrible mistake later. Lucy’s presence in New York has been predicated on the flimsiest of signs. And everything happens on a Tuesday. It’s the kind of framework which can try my patience but I found myself sufficiently engrossed not to mind. Prentiss tosses a few well-aimed barbs at the art market and its ever-increasing prices – even the most raggle taggle squatters succumb to the lure of money once it’s on offer, no matter how hard they justify their excesses. All this unfolds against a backdrop of 1980s New York City – gritty, grubby and considerably more edgy pre-cleanup. The novel has its flaws – the impressionistic ‘Portrait’ sequences didn’t work for me – but all in all it’s an entertaining, absorbing read with a nice appearance from our old friend redemption at the end.