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)

Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen

I have long liked Quindlen’s work, but this 2016 novel is a disappointment. It is about the Miller family, whose ancestors founded a Pennsylvania farm village named after them. The story is also about this village and its future, and is narrated by Mimi Miller, whom we first meet as a child in the 1960s. Unfortunately, her family appears to be an ordinary one, with its typical loyalties and typical disputes, typical silences and typical black sheep. And its members rarely impact one another or the world about them. Instead, they let things happen, from accidents to strokes, from being seduced to refusing to challenge others. And, above all, they never resist the major change the government plans to make in their lives.

The government has announced that the Pennsylvania valley where they live is to be flooded, that a dam is to be built for flood control, as well as to create both a new source of energy and a recreational area. The title suggests that the flooding of this farmland is to be the underlying theme that ties this novel together. But it does so only at the end. For most of the novel, this work is about the Miller family; and, as I said, this family, especially Mimi, mainly reacts to the events around them.

The structure of the novel follows Mimi, from her school days and school crushes, to a long affair and a desperate abortion, to a casual scholarship recommendation and the casual return of a lost love. She has to deal with her farmer father, Buddy, also the town handyman; her close-mouthed but wise mother, Miriam; her rebellious brother, Tommy; and her recluse aunt, Ruth. But while we learn a lot about this family, there is little conflict among them to draw the reader on.

In addition, there is a girl friend LaRhonda, who simply fades from Mimi’s life after high school. And there is also Winston Bally, who represents the government threat and is rather obnoxious; but he is eventually disposed of quite casually—and maybe ironically in the author’s mind. Perhaps Mimi’s mother is the most interesting character, because of her mysterious dislike of Ruth, but even more because she recognizes that her daughter must escape this town if she is to fulfill her potential.

In the foreground, meanwhile, Mimi is simply reacting to the people and the events around her, especially to her troubled brother Tommy. She herself does not strive to create her own future. It is the author who moves the reader on to the next stage in her life, rather than Mimi herself who does so. Such as not knowing her future, until a teacher sits her down and points to a scholarships to the University of Pennsylvania and then to its medical school. Such as delaying her career when her father suffers a stroke. Such as being pursued by the seductive Steve, and, later, tracked down by a man, Donald, who long ago faded from her life.

My reaction to this novel is opposite to my recent view of Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland. There, I was very involved in narrator Ben’s family life (and note the similar structure of that family and this one). But I was not drawn into the local government’s resistance to desegregating its schools. Whereas, here, I was not at all interested in Mimi and her family, but was hoping there would be more involvement between her family and the government’s plans to flood their valley. One does wonder if the author deliberately made Mimi’a family so passive regarding the threatened flooding, intending it to reflect Mimi’s own passivity in her personal life. Or perhaps vice versa. In any event, passivity does not bring conflict; and that, for, me is the key to keeping a reader interested in a novel.

Quindlen does write an interesting ending, a poetic ending, a kind of summing up of these characters’ feelings about their land and their valley. I wish I had felt some of that emotion earlier, however, as the threat of the dam filled more and more of their future landscape. Yes, it is natural to feel helpless against the plans of the government, but that means there is no story, when no one is fighting the government’s decision. Instead, we have the passive Mimi, who mainly worries about, but does little to help, the rebellious Tommy. And he is fighting not the government but his own demons. Indeed, his story almost belongs to another novel.

There is also a tiny surprise toward the end. We learn why Ruth has been such a recluse. And it explains the actions of certain people in the family. But it has no broad repercussions on the life of Mimi or anyone else. Indeed, Mimi discovers the secret almost accidentally, and does not allow it to alter her opinions about anyone in her family. While the reader achieves a brief “aha” moment, and then moves on. It is merely the high point in a final chapter that rounds up these people’s lives, especially Mimi’s—a roundup that many authors think their work needs.

I should note that my response to this novel is completely opposite to that of Caroline Leavitt in the New York Times Book Review. She called the novel “mesmerizing,” and the characters “richly alive.” Which only goes to show how subjective book reviewing can be. Usually, I like novels in which a mature character narrates his or her youthful experiences, and how those experiences helped that person grow into maturity. But I did not find that here, as I have explained. Usually, I also enjoy reading fiction about a disappearing way of life. But I also did not experience that here. In part, because the threat was in the background for much of the book. As if the author was torn between two stories. One, about a family; and the other, about a change in their way of life. I simply think she did not sufficiently merge the two—although other critics have thought that she did.

This does not turn me away from future Quindlen novels, but I do hope she returns to family rivalries, family disputes, and stories of inner turmoil, rather than to sociologically significant subjects. Novels should be about people, and about their interaction with society, yes, but about what is happening in society only through their own personal stories. (May, 2017)

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen

From the moment Rebecca Winter awakens in her rustic upstate cottage in the middle of the night, thinking she has heard a gunshot, I was in that dark cottage and in the mind of this woman—and was committed to this 2014 novel. Because it quickly caught her fear, her questioning, her uncertainty about why she was in this cottage in this godforsaken town where she knew no one.

Indeed, loneliness is a minor theme of this novel, underpinning the empty life of this sixty-year-old photographer who was once famous but now is almost ignored. She became famous for a photograph that gives this novel its title, part of a series of kitchen counter photographs that caught the public’s eye, especially feminists, and made her wealthy. But the money has run out now, she is divorced from an egotistical man who never appreciated her, and she has now fled Manhattan to balance her budget and revive her creative juices—renting this cottage that has no heat, no telephone, little electricity, and a bad roof.

Rebecca becomes such an interesting woman, as she ponders her loss of fame, deals with her house, and wanders the woods with her camera, that I had as little need as she in wandering into town. And even less interest in getting to know her upbringing, her fickle husband, her Manhattan apartment, her film-maker son, and her now elderly parents. Because these scenes which fleshed out her past interrupted the flow of this work. But apparently Quindlen likes these abrupt shifts in time, for she says she is going to use this technique in subsequent fiction. I did not need such flashbacks, however, to sense the depths of this woman. Instead, I wanted to leave the past each time, and follow her as she adapted to her new rural life.

Rebecca does meet a roofer, Jim Bates, a tea shop proprietor Sarah, and Tad, a former boy soprano but now a party clown; and we sense something will come of these relationships. But more interesting are the tiny white crosses, each with a personal memento, that Rebecca encounters and photographs in the woods. Worried about her bank account, she also takes on a job photographing migrating birds, working alongside Jim who has volunteered to track them. Their conversations suggest a promising relationship may develop. She also takes in a stray dog, and as she begins photographing him one senses her creative juices beginning to flow.

And yet, too much background keeps slowing my interest. It is Rebecca and Jim I am interested in, and Rebecca and the town. They like her, and so do I. I do not need to know about Sarah’s husband, or even Tad’s unhappiness. What does keep me turning the pages are those white crosses. Who is leaving them around? What do they mean? And why, early on, did Jim spirit away one he found in the woods?

But finally, the plot clicks in. Rebecca and Jim spend a night together. But a misunderstanding then separates them. It is a conventional device, but both are likable people, and we want to see them back together. More plot mechanics take Rebecca to the funeral of her father, introduce a new agent for her, and take us to her grand opening at a gallery in Brooklyn. Each of these scenes works, not least the gallery opening because both Quindlen and Rebecca scorn the pretentious art world it represents.

And then comes the philosophical raison d’être for this novel. It is not about feminism. It is more about life alone, another’s life. It is about why the white crosses were set out. That they were personal. That they were an unspoken plea. And that Rebecca has taken their three-dimensional reality and reduced them to two-dimensional art, when: “They’re not just pictures,” Jim says. “They’re real…The point is…what they mean. Not what the pictures mean, what the things mean.” And we suddenly understand the solid reality Quindlen has implanted in this book, and why she has made her heroine a photographer.

The realization also comes to Rebecca. “She looked at the White Cross photographs again with her new knowledge about what had become before and after them, and instead of static images they seemed an infinite prolonging….She wondered if the great artists had ever considered this, da Vinci with the woman who would become Mona Lisa, Sargent with Madame X, whether they had ever considered the terrible eternity of immortality….

She sat in a chair in the dark, watching [Jim and the dog], and when she was tempted to use her camera, she was suddenly ashamed of herself for the very first time.”

It is a marvelous evocation of photography, indeed of all art. All artists. Even novelists. That we use life to create art. That life is real and art is not, and that we must not confuse the two. This is not to deny art its legitimacy. It is simply not to put it above man. I found this moment quite moving, surely because it made me more aware of my own photography.

In the background, Rebecca often refers to the women’s movement in describing her success. That she pointed her camera at commonplace subjects in the home, such as a new baby, or a kitchen. But I see this novel more as the portrait of an individual woman, not of a movement. What carries this work is Rebecca herself, her loneliness, her doubt, her independence, her conviction, her family responsibility, and her need for human contact. She is a believable human being, even a convincing lover, at 60, for a man of 45.

To sum up, this is an outstanding Quindlen novel. I remember my regret when she quit her New York Times column in order to write fiction. But she had that belief in herself that Rebecca has here. And like Rebecca’s, her decision was the right one. Like Rebecca, moreover, her approach to a novel here appears to change. The premise does not begin with a situation, a violent husband, a baby on the doorstep, but on the loneliness, the doubt, of her heroine. All develops from that. What she does retain is the detail, the tiny observation that reveals character, that captures a moment of time.

I look forward to the next Quindlen novel, knowing it will be filled with pertinent details, with personal strengths and weaknesses, and, one hopes, with a further comment on the human condition. (July, 2015)