Anna Quindlen exposes NY social strata in 'Alternate Side'

Anna Quindlen exposes NY social strata in 'Alternate Side'

"Alternate Side" (Random House), by Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen has written a book that only a New Yorker — or at least someone who has lived there for a stint — could love. The rest of the world may have a hard time relating to the characters. Even the title refers to an obscure parking rule that people who live on certain Manhattan streets don't always understand. And the characters, well, they are Big Apple to the bone.

Meet the Nolans: Nora is the director of the Museum of Jewelry, which consists mostly of pieces from the collection of a rich widow, some of which aren't even genuine, and Charlie is an investment banker, frustrated because he's not getting promoted fast enough. They have twins, at Williams and MIT; a Jamaican nanny named Charity who was on the job the day the twins came home from the hospital; and a handyman who works for them and many of their Upper West Side neighbours doing everything from repairing washing machines to unclogging toilets.

The novel's plot turns on a moment of violence involving Ricky the handyman and one of the neighbours after a parking lot accident. That one act forces Nora to reconsider her relationships and her overall lot in life. It's not giving anything away to say she sides with Ricky and in doing so exposes rifts with her husband and many others in the neighbourhood .

At 284 pages, the novel is taut and well-paced. You turn the pages wanting to know where things are headed. But in the end, the story seems all too unfamiliar to anyone who didn't go to private school or attend catered community barbecues. You realize the events of the novel are Very Important to the characters, but to those of us looking in from the outside, it's a story filled with first-world problems.

Quindlen is aware of this. She's writing about what she undoubtedly knows — people of privilege reacting in sometimes surprising but often predictable ways — and centring her story on a couple drifting apart. "You could argue they'd lost their way, in their choices, their work, their marriage," writes Quindlen about Nora and Charlie. "But the truth was, there wasn't any way. There was just day after day, small stuff, idle conversation, scheduling. And then after a couple of decades it somehow added up to something, for good or for ill or for both."

The real star of the novel is New York herself. Quindlen — and protagonist Nora — are head over heels for the place. The smells — "hot dogs with cooked onions" — the sights — "buildings sheathed in scaffolding cages" — and the sounds — "someone ranting on the street." Nora even muses that one of the best gifts she gave her children was that they could write "New York City" on forms asking for place of birth.

All told, if you've read Quindlen before and liked it, you'll probably like this book. If this is your first time, it may be an acquired taste, but don't let this review prevent you from giving it a shot.

Rob Merrill, The Associated Press