REVIEW: ALTERNATE SIDE, BY ANNA QUINDLEN

 

Some days Nora Nolan thinks that she and her husband, Charlie, lead a charmed life—except when there’s a crisis at work, a leak in the roof at home, or a problem with their twins at college. And why not? New York City was once Nora’s dream destination, and her clannish dead-end block has become a safe harbor, a tranquil village amid the urban craziness. The owners watch one another’s children grow up. They use the same handyman. They trade gossip and gripes, and they maneuver for the ultimate status symbol: a spot in the block’s small parking lot.

Then one morning, Nora returns from her run to discover that a terrible incident has shaken the neighborhood, and the enviable dead-end block turns into a potent symbol of a divided city. The fault lines begin to open: on the block, at Nora’s job, especially in her marriage. With an acute eye that captures the snap crackle of modern life, Anna Quindlen explores what it means to be a mother, a wife, and a woman at a moment of reckoning.

 

My Thoughts: Nora Nolan’s voice swept me along through Alternate Side, like a philosophical journey of life in New York City: a place composed of neighborhoods, marriages, and people moving on to other realities. The rhythm of Nora’s daily life felt like perfection…until it wasn’t.

How could street parking on alternate sides, with another option being a convenient parking lot, morph into a symbol of all that is wrong with the choices we make? Thoughts about the choices people make, like living in Manhattan vs. deciding on a suburban or alternate city kind of life, crept through the pages beautifully. The author’s prose captivated me, even as I felt drawn in by the situations in which the characters found themselves.

Quickly I couldn’t stand Nora’s husband Charlie, but then by the end, I just felt sorry for him. George was so annoying that I wanted to spit on him, but suddenly Jack Fisk earned most of my venom for his horrific actions.

I liked this quote about marriage: “The truth was that their marriages were like balloons: some went suddenly pop, but more often than not the air slowly leaked out until it was a sad, wrinkled little thing with no lift to it anymore.”

And so on and on, we looked at NY life in general: it moved along effortlessly, and then it transmogrified, turning into a renovation of a life that was built on the past. One character described Manhattan life as a city of the mind.

Could alternate realities rise out of what once was? This great story made me constantly think about life and about how we decide where to live and who we are. 5 stars.***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley

REVIEW: THE HEIRS, BY SUSAN RIEGER

 

Six months after Rupert Falkes dies, leaving a grieving widow and five adult sons, an unknown woman sues his estate, claiming she had two sons by him. The Falkes brothers are pitched into turmoil, at once missing their father and feeling betrayed by him. In disconcerting contrast, their mother, Eleanor, is cool and calm, showing preternatural composure.

Eleanor and Rupert had made an admirable life together — Eleanor with her sly wit and generosity, Rupert with his ambition and English charm — and they were proud of their handsome, talented sons: Harry, a brash law professor; Will, a savvy Hollywood agent; Sam, an astute doctor and scientific researcher; Jack, a jazz trumpet prodigy; Tom, a public-spirited federal prosecutor. The brothers see their identity and success as inextricably tied to family loyalty – a loyalty they always believed their father shared. Struggling to reclaim their identity, the brothers find Eleanor’s sympathy toward the woman and her sons confounding. Widowhood has let her cast off the rigid propriety of her stifling upbringing, and the brothers begin to question whether they knew either of their parents at all.

My Thoughts: In a non-linear style, the reader learns more about the Falkes family and some of their friends. Dipping into the past, moving forward, and then centering on the issues of the present, The Heirs feels like an in-depth portrait of a family and an era. The back and forth offers an opportunity to learn more about the characters and how they came to be…but at times, the writing style felt like a detached listing of events. Abrupt, dry, and matter-of-fact in its portrayals.

Set in Manhattan, primarily, at the beginning of the 21st Century, we come to learn about the lives of a family, punctuated by the dramatic events. As with most families, there are conflicts…and I thought it was interesting how we slowly learn traits of the grown Falkes sons, as they each face the current dilemma: Harry is a “blurter,” coming out with whatever he is thinking, with no filter. Will tries to be the amiable one, and Sam, the middle child, seems to be neutral about most issues…until suddenly, he seems to rebel. Jack is described as the obnoxious one…and Tom, the baby, has often required looking after by the others.

How they each react to the potential interlopers, the two other putative sons from a different mother, tells us a lot about their characters.

We also learn more about the dynamics of the family members as we see glimpses of the past. I liked learning more about Rupert, about how he met Eleanor, but we also catch a glimpse of his relationship with Vera, the woman who sues the estate. Was he the father of her two sons? Or was there more to the story? A few more surprises pop up along the way, with an ending that left some more questions in a satisfying way. 4 stars.***

THE LONG JOURNEY DOWNWARD

17435052Artist Erica Mason moves to New York, after an idyllic time spent in Mexico, exploring that art scene and moving past it.

Cleans Up Nicely opens in 1977, with Erica showing us what her life looks like after. Told in her first person narration, we see that she has “cleaned up nicely,” but the path is a new one. And she feels the disparity between her life now and the “outsides” of the life of Addie McC, who lives in a luxury building. And who is a member of AA, this new world Erica is navigating.

Flash back to the early 1970s, and the story reverts to a third-person narrative from Erica’s perspective, revealing the slow slide down to her “bottom.”

The trip down would not be a straight path. There would be many ups and downs, and whenever she almost seems to have an epiphany, the trickery of denial will insert itself, reminding her that she just needs to control her drinking and using. And she does. For a time.

The reader sees the moments of exhilaration, the fun, the conviviality of the drinking culture that is like a euphoric high that keeps Erica going back for more. What Erica wants to ignore, and even push away from consideration, are the occasional blackouts that occur with greater frequency. And how her behavior dramatically changes, turning her into a person she does not recognize.

What will ultimately penetrate Erica’s denial? How will she finally accept what is happening to her? And will she find her way to sobriety, while still retaining her creativity?

Before her realization, however, an awareness begins to creep in:

“Lying back on the chaise longue with wine, Erica confirms the truth for herself: the relief of drinking! Then, by the fifth or sixth glass, she remembers another truth, the one she always forgets until it is too late. Which is, oh shit, not again! Because once again, not intending to, she has overdone it; she is captive once more to the bottle. And all she can do is drain the thing dry and wake up with the hangover of her greed, her weak will, her shameful lust for the stuff…here she is again, lost in the desert of drunkenness. Ending in some pointless fall, some crying jag, some late-night phone calls. God help her if she goes out on the streets.”

The author has created very true-to-life characters that bring into focus the scenes in this story, reminding me of the times in which they are living. As if I were there with them. Sometimes I feel as though I am those characters, and the slide downward is mine. I almost inhabit their worlds. The bottoming out process is described with such accuracy, revealing much about the author’s ability to explore that universe. A compelling and captivating five star read.

STARTING OVER: RELATIONSHIP & MONEY WOES IN MANHATTAN — A REVIEW

15814422Two sisters recover from widowhood, divorce, and Bernie Madoff as unexpected roommates in a Manhattan apartment.

Unexpectedly widowed Gwen-Laura Schmidt is still mourning her husband, Edwin, when her older sister Margot invites her to join forces as roommates in Margot’s luxurious Village apartment. For Margot, divorced amid scandal (hint: her husband was a fertility doctor) and then made Ponzi-poor, it’s a chance to shake Gwen out of her grief and help make ends meet. To further this effort she enlists a third boarder, the handsome, cupcake-baking Anthony.

Gwen is the first-person narrator whose take on her changed life, as well as her reluctance to embark on a new relationship, drew me in with her humor and self-deprecation. Despite the urging of her sisters and the almost forceful way that Margot and the roommate Anthony try to push her toward online dating, Gwen has her own view of how these things will develop. She’s a bit old-fashioned when it comes to matters of the heart. So when she gets an unexpected e-mail from an elderly woman who has read her ad and thinks her son, who is a widower, might just be the perfect mate for her, Gwen is intrigued.

What will happen when Gwen and Eli meet? How will Margot’s ex-husband manage to insinuate himself back into Margot’s life? And what about the future of the Penthouse B residents? Will everything change if their relationship woes end?

In many ways, the situations in which the sisters find themselves are predictable; what sets the story apart is the humor and the strength of the bond between the sisters.

A fun book with interesting characters who are struggling to cope in the modern world, The View from Penthouse B was one I thoroughly enjoyed. Four stars.

A FRIENDSHIP JOURNEY — A REVIEW

3295In the sequel to The Friday Night Knitting Club, Knit Two picks up a few years after the first story ends.

Georgia, the owner of the Walker and Daughter Knitting shop, who died in the first book, is a big part of this tale. Her presence continues in the minds and hearts of those left behind: the group of friends who comprised the knitting club. Women of all ages from a variety of backgrounds and experiences, they show us bits and pieces of who they are, moving ahead.

Dakota, as Georgia’s daughter and co-owner of the shop, is a freshman at NYU. There she is, trying to figure out who she is and what she wants, and whether or not she will forever be tied to the shop; will she continue her mother’s dream, or will she find out what the shop means to her in the present?

What I enjoyed most about this story was the wide age-range of the characters, from Anita, a seventy-something woman on down to the teenaged Dakota. In between are the forty-somethings and the thirty-somethings, proving once again that age is not what defines us. Even those who didn’t knit in the first book are now finding their own pace, while discovering other things that connect them to one another.

A trip to Italy brings together a group of people joined by business, but in the end, something further connects them. What is Anita’s big secret, and what is the meaning behind the mysterious postcards she receives? How does Catherine’s telephone connection to a man named Marco—an Italian winemaker—lead them all to the answers one of them has pursued? And what seemingly tragic event forms the basis for a whole new definition for the shop and for each of them? There were some predictable parts to the story, but I enjoyed how everything came together in the end. In the final section, recipes and knitting patterns are brought out for the reader. A book that knitters will enjoy, it also offers the reader a feel-good peek into the world of friendships between women, in glorious settings, from Manhattan to Italy. Four stars.

LETTING GO SO LOVE CAN THRIVE — A REVIEW

 

 

 

In the lilting narrative voice of Grace Barnum, we follow her journey to love.

We meet her first when she is an editor for a textbook company: boring, predictable, responsible. Living with her equally predictable boyfriend Steven. Her life is pretty much all figured out.

And then she meets handsome, charming, responsibility-challenged Tyler Wilkie when he is walking the neighbor’s dogs. And something subtly begins to change for Grace.

But she fights it. How can she possibly feel what she’s feeling for this musician? This man who shortly begins to develop a following, with groupies.

Throughout Grace Grows, we come to root for Grace and Ty, even when they don’t believe in themselves. Then Ty does believe in the two of them, but Grace doubts it.

What will it take for Grace to grow? She must make choices, givie up old ideas, and let go so she can love. Will she finally find what has eluded her for her whole life?

Very enjoyable and charming tale set in New York, with funny and quirky characters that made me care about them. A little predictable. But a fun four star read.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: ONE YOUNG MAN’S JOURNEY TO MANHOOD — A REVIEW

 

 

 

If it takes a village to raise a child, for J. R. Moehringer, it took Manhasset, in Long Island, NY; and more specifically, it took a neighborhood bar named Dickens (later called Publicans).

In the 1970s and 80s, the young boy was first captivated by The Voice, the unseen presence of his absent father. When the radio presence mysteriously disappeared, he inadvertently stumbled upon a host of other mentors in the bar on the corner in his village.

Two themes guided the young boy: growing up to take care of his mother, and getting into Yale. Along the way, there were the men at the bar, who took him under their wing: Uncle Charlie; Steve, the bar owner with the Cheshire smile; Joey D; Cager; Bob the Cop….and assorted members of this very influential club of mentors who stood in for the missing father.

We struggle along with J. R. as he achieves his goal of growing to manhood. Connecting with J. R. is inevitable, as the coming-of-age trials and tribulations are sprinkled with the stories of his mentors and his own voice laden with humor and honesty. From this “school” of tender influences, it is no surprise that J. R. became a writer. His efforts to become a reporter (from copyboy) at the New York Times had me rooting for him, even as his path inevitably took him elsewhere to greater heights.

Other influences, like the quirky managers of a bookstore in Arizona, added “voices” to the others when they encouraged him and lent him books that would ever after enrich his life.

In the final pages of The Tender Bar, J. R. is watching a video of his mother holding him as a baby, and these thoughts sum up his story for me:

“…I’d always believed that being a man meant standing your ground, but this was something my mother had done better than anyone. And yet she’d also known when it was time to go. She’d left my father, left Grandpa’s, left New York, and I was always the beneficiary of her restless courage. I’d been so focused on getting in, I’d failed to appreciate my mother’s genius for getting out….I’d always been dimly aware, but at that moment, with my first glimpse of the warrior behind my mother’s blank face, I grasped the idea fully and put it into words for the first time. All this searching and longing for the secret of being a good man, and all I needed to do was follow the example of one very good woman.

Brilliantly chronicled, one young man’s journey through life’s adversity toward his ultimate path captivated this reader to the very end, and left me wanting more of the story. Five stars.