Tempting Fare for Book Clubs – Quindlen’s Alternate Side

9780812996067   Love New York City?  Want to improve your vocabulary? Your neighbors driving you crazy? What do you think about the homeless?  Do you have parking?  Anna Quindlen’s story about lives intersecting in Alternate Side has so much to talk about.

It’s hard to appreciate the value of a parking space unless you do not have one.  In Calvin Trillin’s Tepper Isn’t going Out, the main character jockeys moving his car to alternate sides of the street to accommodate New York City’s idiosyncratic parking rules.  Parking space is sacred, maybe more important than the car.  I could relate – I’ve been there.  In Quindlen’s story, Charlie and Nora have finally scored a parking spot in the private empty lot at the end of their dead end street in New York City.  At first, the description of the cul-de-sac occupants seems innocuous – just another neighborhood – until one of the residents whacks the indispensable handyman with a golf club for blocking his car.

Suddenly, the atmosphere shifts to the underlying currents plaguing this quiet area – not only the mysterious bags of dog poop on Nora’s front stoop or the rats running out from under the cars but also Charlie’s unsuccessful quest for recognition in his career and Nora’s dissatisfaction with her marriage.  With her usual flair for relatable characters, Quindlen reviews the parallel tracks of the haves and the have-nots, comparing lives :  a group of homeowners with rising equity in old Victorian homes to the Jamaican nannies/housekeepers and handymen from the Dominican Republic who serve them; the superficial wealthy founder of a jewelry museum to the fake homeless guy outside the building; Nora’s private yearning for the lost love of her gay college boyfriend to the husband she settled for.  Quindlen uses a phrase to mock them all – “First world problems” – how is it they want something else, when what they have seems so much more.

Quindlen’s stories are quiet yet forceful, and she is on my list of favorite writers; she can’t write fast enough for me.  One of my favorites – Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake – her “roadmap for growing older while still enjoying life” has one of her relatable lines I still live through.  In Alternate Side, she offers an opportunity to examine what is important in life, and how long it takes sometimes to realize it – if ever.  Or – an alternate view might be, she offers a tale of a middle-aged couple in New York City who finally got a parking space.

An Added Note:    My best friend and I were reading this book simultaneously, her on the East Coast, me in the middle of the ocean, and we both loved the words – our favorite is “bespoke,”  but a few others crept in too – eschew, ersatz – you might find more.  And I had to highlight some favorite phrases:

“If all the women who fantasized about their husbands’ passings made them happen, there would be no men in the world.”

“There remained the hand-tinted wedding portrait hanging at the end of the upstairs hall, in which both of their parents looked stiff, a little uncomfortable, almost as though they had not yet been introduced.”

“…since she was eleven, the beginning of a time when, Nora knew now from experience, girls are mean as sleet and should be cryogenically frozen and reconstituted later…”

Related:  Miller’s Valley


Today Will Be Different

9780316467063_p0_v2_s192x300    No matter how miserable or crazy your life might be, Maria Semple manages to make her characters’ problems worse, and in Today Will Be Different – more poignant.  Eleanor Flood, a quirky graphic artist married to a serious hand surgeon, battles her past and struggles with her present. Of course, she wins, as do all Semple’s idiosyncratic heroines.

The story unfolds in one day, packed with more trouble and good intentions than most of us have in a year. The theme, however rings true: how many of us wake up each morning determined to turn over a new leaf and reform our ways. Despite the one day format, Semple delivers Eleanor’s backstory and reveals her past demons through her interaction with other characters. As she tracks down her husband who is missing from his office, Eleanor has a series of missteps.  She sabotages the opening of an art exhibit, steals a set of keys from a parent at her son’s school, loses her contract for an unfinished graphic novel based on her childhood, and more.  Sample was the screenwriter for several successful television series, and she packs a season’s episodes in this book.

For fans of Where’d You Go Bernadette?, this story is also set in Seattle.  Those blackberry bushes reappear, Eleanor’s son Timby attends the infamous Galer Street School, and Semple can’t resist a few disparaging remarks about Amazon “squids.”

Although the plot jumps around and takes a while to get settled into the story,  this latest Semple offering will have you laughing, nodding in agreement at her pithy views on life, and hopeful – maybe life will be different – tomorrow.

The Children’s Crusade

9781476710457_p0_v3_s260x420Ann Packer has some thoughts on that old adage – “It’s all my mother’s fault” in her new book, The Children’s Crusade.  Whatever we have become may be attributable to our mothers – or not…

At first glance, the Blairs are the model family – something out of the old Donna Reed show, with the pediatrician father, the repressed mother, and four children – three boys and a girl.  Of course, they are not ideal – no family is – and Packer allows the reader to live among their yearnings and disappointments, learning how families survive, and offering a little wisdom about relationships.

After Penny Greenway marries Bill Blair, who has dreams of a family-filled house on the wooded California acres he bought on a whim after returning from the war,  she chafes at her role as wife, housekeeper, and mother.  Looking forward to the day when her three children will finally all be in school, she is sidelined by a fourth unwanted pregnancy – another obstacle to her free time and her development as a budding artist.  The story flips between her life with her young children and the grown adult children they’ve become, with each telling the story through alternating chapters.  When the black sheep, the youngest, returns to force the sale of the big house, the plot turns inward to adult feelings of inadequacy and betrayal.

Throughout the story, James, the youngest among his three R siblings – Robert, Rebecca, and Ryan – forces the action.  As a young child, James is unmanageable, lively, and unpredictable, demonstrating bizarre behavior, possibly in an attempt to get attention from a mother who would rather not give it to him.  As the others grow into doctors and a teacher, James drops out, wanders the world, and finally finds himself in a commune in Oregon.  Needing money to start a life with his new love, a married mother of two, James returns home to test the conditions of the trust his father had established before he died.  The sale of the big house is contingent on the approval of Penny, now an artist living in New Mexico, and at least one of the children.  Up until now, the children have been united against their mother and  rallied against the sale.

The “crusade” refers to the young children’s plan to make their mother happy.  What could they do as a family that would interest their mother?  How could they rein her into their circle?  Make her want to be with them?  An impossibility – Penny is overwhelmed with the drudge of her life, and only wants to escape to her shed to create art.

Packer is careful to create shadings as she describes Penny’s life in the fifties.  Penny hungers for recognition as more than the stay-at-home mother, hostess, wife of a Doctor.  Some sacrifices were just too hard for her to make, yet, in a moment of clarity toward the end of the book, Packer has James state the obvious – “Wasn’t the whole thing mutual?”  Could Bill and Penny have figured out a way to give each other what they needed as individuals?  Their children do figure it out, as they move on away from the past and into their own futures.


The London Train

Tessa Hadley’s “The London Train” has been on my shelf too long – a perfect candidate for a long plane ride to London -a book I could read and leave en route.

The title fulfills its promise for a chance meeting on the London train, linking the lives of Paul and Cora. Separated into two sections, the story opens with Paul, a writer, distraught over the death of his elderly mother, discovering that his daughter by his first wife has left school, and is pregnant and living in London with her lover. He leaves his second wife and two young daughters to start a new life with them in London – that doesn’t quite work out.

Cora’s story fills in the blanks of her relationship with Paul -including their chance meeting three years earlier – while describing her strained marriage and her yearning for a child. When she connects with Paul, she envisions a better life – that also doesn’t quite work out.

At a point in the narrative, Hadley describes Cora reading a book – “The writing…was rather dry, in a sparse terse style, without atmospherics…” that fits her own nicely. I found myself skipping through the long mundane descriptions to find the storyline that backtracks to the life-changing encounter.

I did finish the book (and gave it away) after realizing the character development was more important than the plot. “The London Train” offers purposeful reading with thoughtful nuances – but I was hoping for more excitement to keep me awake on the flight.