Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.
Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!
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At first, I didn’t think I would be interested in the characters of Alternate Side, privileged and wealthy New Yorkers who live on a dead-end block on the West Side. Nora Nolan explains they are only wealthy because of the value of their homes, but their concerns are of private schools, servants, high-powered jobs, and other areas of privilege. However, I liked Nora and some of the other characters.
Nora loves New York and their little neighborhood. She is aware, though, that her husband, Charlie, is not as happy. His job in investments has not worked out as he hoped, and he is upset when he hears that his boss, Bob Harris, has approached Nora to run a new foundation he’s setting up. To avoid making Charlie upset, Nora takes a job for a woman who is opening a jewelry museum.
Charlie is also interested in the money they could make if they sold the house, and he often suggests other cities where they could live, but Nora, loving New York as she does, pays little attention.
Then things in the neighborhood are changed by an ugly incident. Charlie has scored a space in a small lot in the neighborhood. Before that, he engaged in the “alternate side” game of moving his car to another side of the street just in time to avoid a fine. But the lot proves to be a source of contention in which he is soon involved. People try to park there without permission, and occasionally the exit is blocked.
The hothead of the neighborhood is Jack, one of the two men on the block whom Nora doesn’t like. One day, Ricky, the neighborhood handyman, parks his van a little too close to the exit of the parking lot, although there is enough room to get out. Jack doesn’t think so, though, and becomes so angry that he takes out a golf club from his car and begins hitting the van. When Ricky runs up asking Jack to stop, he hits Ricky and breaks his leg.
The block begins to take sides. Nora, who thinks Jack is a horrible man, believes he is guilty of assault, while Charlie, who was there, says it was an accident. Then when Nora visits Ricky in the hospital, Jack’s wife Sherry—whom Nora likes—becomes angry with her. At the same time, Nora notices changes in the cleanliness of the area, and someone begins leaving little bags of dog poop on her front porch. She has a dog but always picks up his poop.
Quindlen makes the disintegration of the neighborhood a metaphor for the disintegration of Nora and Charlie’s marriage. She does this without too much drama, in a way that is interesting and well written. Still, I have to say as a minor caveat about the novel as a whole that I don’t have that much sympathy for someone whose biggest worry is whether her housekeeper will quit now that the kids have gone to college.
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
This is a nuanced depiction of two people whose needs are no longer the same. Nora seems cynical about Charlie rather than loving and disdains his business ambitions. As I’ve mentioned, she loves New York, while Charlie has grown to hate it. Nora acknowledges that Charlie would be more successful in any other city, but she isn’t interested in moving. In effect, she isn’t willing to compromise her own life for Charlie’s happiness any more than she has already done by turning down the job for Charlie’s boss.
Charlie also disdains Nora’s career, and later we learn that he has always felt like Nora’s second choice in mates, because she was deeply in love with her college boyfriend, James, who turned out to be gay. In fact, it is his fresh and honest personality that she turned to then and that stands in his way at work (although, another caveat, I wasn’t persuaded by Quindlen’s depiction of this personality and in fact had only a vague notion of Charlie’s personality). Charlie himself is turning too often to drink.
I loved this novel for showing an undramatic parting of the ways, a story about people growing apart. There is no deceit, no affairs, no big fights, just a realization that parting needs to occur and the beginning of new lives.