“Alternate Side” by Anna Quindlen

Genre:          Literary Fiction
Publisher:    Random HouseAlternate Side
Pub. Date:    March 2018

The author, Anna Quindlen, writes something you do not often find: bestseller literary fiction.  Most books on the bestseller list are usually commercial fiction, not literary.  Both types of fiction require talent.  But the aim of commercial fiction is entertainment.  The aim of literary fiction is art.  Generally, there is a more attention to style.  Also, the plot is usually less obvious.  I’m a big fan of literary fiction.  In Quindlen’s novel, “Alternate Side” (referring to alternate side parking) you will find a good example of such a style.

She writes about the residents who live on a dead-end block in New York City where all own their brownstones.  Each brownstone belongs to a single family.   If you are a New Yorker, you know that only the ultra rich can afford to own a house in Manhattan.  We meet a husband, wife, their college-aged twins and their Australian sheepdog.  The story goes back and forth in time.  We read about when the couple met in college.  They move into NYC, because of its hip reputation.   They do not have any money so they live in closet-sized rooms in cockroach infested buildings.  Even with the lack of space, and the pesky bugs, they fall in love with the city.    By the time they are in their 50s, they are overly privileged and their marriage is in trouble.  (Next sentence is a spoiler).  The marriage dissolves without any major blowups, or indiscretions, but simply because they have nothing left to say to one another.  Plus, the husband is ready to move out of the city and the wife’s love affair with the Big Apple is as strong as when they were young.  “There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy.  There’s only you and me and we just disagree”

Their block is a tight-knit community.  They are excited when a new puppy arrives on the dead-end and mourn with the owner when a pet dies.  They have an annual summer barbecue, one with a police permit, not like those in other, less desirable, neighborhoods.   One resident throws an elaborate, yearly Christmas party.   At this time of year, all put wreaths on their door.  That is how you can tell if someone is renting: no wreath.  The owners don’t mingle with the renters but are welcoming when the owners return.  But not all are rich city snobs as it may sound.  Our wife knows that the block’s Latino handyman’s kids have colds.   She goes to his apartment in the Bronx to give him their unused humidifier.  She is disturbed to see how different he acts in his own neighborhood.  Before he sees her, his walk has a swagger.  She notices how, when not in his uniform, he dresses cool and loose, sporting a leather jacket.  When he does recognize her, he adjusts his posture into a meek manner and humbly addresses her as “Missus.”  They are both embarrassed and she wishes she never entered his domain.  As a one-time social worker who did home visits, I know this class difference embarrassment.  The author does such a good job with this moment.  She isn’t shy about it at all.  I cringed.

Despite being so friendly, we learn that not all the owners are so fond of each other.  Still, they are loyal and keep each other’s secrets. At parties, a dignified older woman is usually fall-down drunk.  No one gossips about her drinking problem.  When she goes away for a month or so, no one asks any embarrassing questions.  One self-appointed resident makes himself the official rule man on the block, sending the others’ silly emails regarding what is and isn’t acceptable.  They tolerate him but inside their own homes they are laughing at his made-up rules.  There is one guy known for his explosive temper.  Oddly, he is married to a psychotherapist.  Still, no one questions why a woman who helps others for a living is not capable of helping herself and stays married to a creep.

If you are familiar with alternate side parking in NYC, you know that people have been known to sleep in their car to ensure that they move their car at the set time to  have a space in the morning.   Before the couple arrived, one of the dead-end’s brownstones burned down, and the owner chose not to rebuild.  The other residents turn the space into a small parking lot for the block only.  The lot is not large enough to accommodate all residents.  You have to earn it.  The author doesn’t explain how one earns it, but income is implied.  The husband is so thrilled with getting the spot that he sends his kids a text with a picture of their car in the lot.  He feels he has finally made it into the big-time.  There is an act of violence that happens around this parking lot and the community begins to show their true feelings about their neighbors.  Stewing class and racial tensions boil over when an arrogant, rich, white lawyer resident (spoiler) hits the handyman in the leg with a golf club for blocking the entrance to the parking lot.   When the handyman is in the hospital, it becomes clear that some genuinely like the guy.   Others see him only as the hired help.  After the incident, arguments break out.

This novel is a great slice-of-life story on a large canvas.  Slowly, you begin to realize that the married couple are not the real protagonists after all.  The story is really about the enviable dead-end block, which turns into a metaphor of a divided city.  The author is subtle.   Still, you start to understand how this novel is direct in other venues.  She never mentions politics, but I cannot help but think that recently the United States is making global headlines for being a divided country.  If you are not accustomed to literary fiction, you may find the book a bit slow for your tastes.   For me, a few paragraphs are too detailed reading more like a poem than a novel.   But overall, Quindlen’s narrative is a remarkable character study on the complexities of neighborhood, family, and political dynamics.

Open link to purchase on Amazon.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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