Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen

This 2018 novel reveals what a wonderful writer Quindlen is. Why do I say that? Because nothing happens. And yet this novel is constantly interesting. Instead of a plot to draw one on, one is drawn on, instead, by a series of portraits, a portrait of a neighborhood on New York’s Upper West Side, where alternate side parking prevails; a portrait of friendly, and unfriendly, neighbors; and a portrait of a marriage and that couple’s family. And as we read on, each portrait grows deeper, becomes more complex, and the novel grows still richer.

At the center of this novel are Nora and Charlie Nolan, both in their fifties, who met casually thirty years ago and quickly realized that each was the partner they needed. Like many youth, their dream was to prove themselves in New York, and as their careers advanced they found an ideal house on a dead end street, where they encountered a group of interesting neighbors. As the novel opens, the value of their homes has appreciated so much that it has impacted the group’s world outlook. And while each of these neighbors is different, as are their relationships with Nora and Charlie, each is also wealthy and white, and they grow united against the world around them, especially as they share a sense of privilege.

Or, as Quindlen writes of that slow social awareness: “There was a shadow government on the block, a shadow government that knew where all the bodies were buried, a system of mutual dependence, one group needing services, the other employment. Nora was never sure where the balance of power fell.”

The neighborhood is tied together by a parking lot, created when an old town house burns down and is never replaced. Charlie is exited when he finally gains one of the six spots in that parking lot, while Nora is unimpressed. Thus are introduced a beginning to their differences.

One resident, George, assumes obnoxious control over the parking lot and serves to tie together the early stages of the novel. But the novel’s one major incident occurs when another resident, Jack, who has anger management issues, slams the group’s revered handyman, Ricky, in the leg with a golf club during a dispute in the parking lot.

This act of violence is the one major incident in the novel, and does emphasize the social tension that exists in their community. It also betrays another small difference of opinion between Nora and Charlie, over who is to blame. Which leads them, eventually, to doubt their respective roles. For while Nora feels at home in New York, Charlie yearns for a quieter, less competitive life in a warmer climate. She, after all, has a prototypical New York type job as the director of a Museum of Jewelry, even if she yearns to find a more significant job, while he is a frustrated investment banker, termed too decent to thrive in that cut-throat environment.

Many of the novel’s pages, however, are given over to normal neighborhood events, such as the gossip at house parties, the hidden envy behind closed doors, and the luncheons among competitive wives, as well as the raising of both children and pets, the inconveniences of pests and faulty plumbing, and the disputes with poor people whose rooms from a neighboring street face their the back of their town houses. All of which focuses on the privileged life of these neighbors and leads the reader to wonder what events we should be concentrating on. There seems to be no real story. And with no story driving it, there is no story to reach an ending.

And yet there is an ending, of course. Not an entirely satisfactory one for this reader. But we see a major relationship come to an end, and the author tries to make it a typical failure between two people who see the world from a different perspective and have different goals.

But life is not art, and art is not life. What works as an ending in one case does not necessarily work as an ending in another. And Quindlen seems to recognize this, since she tries to broaden the conclusion of her novel. She introduces the idea of an alternate universe. What if certain things in the neighborhood, she asks, had not happened? Or, more realistically, perhaps residents like these do not always remember what they had once had. They have a kind of amnesia, and they ignore the city or the years of their youth. “They’d forgotten where they had come from, how they’d started out. They’d forgotten what the city really was, and how small a part of it they truly were.”

I have to define this as a tacked on ending, an attempt to make this beautiful close-up view of a marriage and a neighborhood a stand-in for the grand and changing history of New York City. But as interesting as the neighborhood scaffold is, it is not strong enough to support such a broad interpretation.

So what remains with me is the incisive portrait of that family, that marriage, and that neighborhood. And I forgive Quindlen for the inconclusiveness of her ending, even as I wish the long life of her main characters had lead to more than a metaphorical lesson. Instead, she simply offers an open ending and suggests it is typical of life, at least modern New York life, and that everyone should now move on.

Some reviewers have suggested that this novel is best appreciated by residents of New York City, with its emphasis on the neighborhood, the upper classes, and the parking issue. But I would dispute that—despite a Google search that reveals far fewer reviews of this novel than serious fiction usually earns. In fact, I do wonder why this work has not received more recognition. Because the presence of a rich social strata and an evocative local environment are usually regarded as strengths in a work of fiction. And most effective of all, we have here a roster of interesting characters whose concerns are real.

One does wonder where Quindlen’s novels will go from here. Is the social environment now of more interest to her than strictly family issues? Miller’s Valley and this novel suggest that this may well be the case. (October, 2019)

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