Alternate Side (Quindlen)

Alternate Side 
Anna Quindlen, 2018
Random House
304 pp.

The tensions in a tight-knit neighborhood—and a seemingly happy marriage—are exposed by an unexpected act of violence. A provocative novel about money, class, and self-discovery.

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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—July 8, 1952
Where—Philadelphia, PA, USA
Education—B.A., Barnard College
Awards—Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times column
Currently—New York, New York

Anna Quindlen could have settled onto a nice, lofty career plateau in the early 1990s, when she had won a Pulitzer Prize for her New York Times column; but she took an unconventional turn, and achieved a richer result.

Quindlen, the third woman to hold a place among the New York Times' Op-Ed columnists, had already published two successful collections of her work when she decided to leave the paper in 1995. But it was the two novels she had produced that led her to seek a future beyond her column.

Quindlen had a warm, if not entirely uncritical, reception as a novelist. Her first book, Object Lessons, focused on an Irish American family in suburban New York in the 1960s. It was a bestseller and a New York Times Notable Book of 1991, but was also criticized for not being as engaging as it could have been. One True Thing, Quindlen's exploration of an ambitious daughter's journey home to take care of her terminally ill mother, was stronger still—a heartbreaker that was made into a movie starring Meryl Streep. But Quindlen's fiction clearly benefited from her decision to leave the Times. Three years after that controversial departure, she earned her best reviews yet with Black and Blue, a chronicle of escape from domestic abuse.

Quindlen's novels are thoughtful explorations centering on women who may not start out strong, but who ultimately find some core within themselves as a result of what happens in the story. Her nonfiction meditations—particularly A Short Guide to a Happy Life and her collection of "Life in the 30s" columns, Living Out Loud—often encourage this same transition, urging others to look within themselves and not get caught up in what society would plan for them. It's an approach Quindlen herself has obviously had success with.

• To those who expressed surprise at Quindlen's apparent switch from columnist to novelist, the author points out that her first love was always fiction. She told fans in a Barnes & chat, "I really only went into the newspaper business to support my fiction habit, but then discovered, first of all, that I loved reporting for its own sake and, second, that journalism would be invaluable experience for writing novels."

• Quindlen joined Newsweek as a columnist in 1999. She began her career at the New York Post in 1974, jumping to the New York Times in 1977.

• Quindlen's prowess as a columnist and prescriber of advice has made her a popular pick for commencement addresses, a sideline that ultimately inspired her 2000 title A Short Guide to a Happy Life Quindlen's message tends to be a combination of stopping to smell the flowers and being true to yourself. Quindlen told students at Mount Holyoke in 1999, "Begin to say no to the Greek chorus that thinks it knows the parameters of a happy life when all it knows is the homogenization of human experience. Listen to that small voice from inside you, that tells you to go another way. George Eliot wrote, 'It is never too late to be what you might have been.' It is never too early, either. And it will make all the difference in the world."

• Studying fiction at Barnard with the literary critic Elizabeth Hardwick, Quindlen's senior thesis was a collection of stories, one of which she sold to Seventeen magazine. (From Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
Captures the angst and anxiety of modern life with… astute observations about interactions between the haves and have-nots, and the realities of life among the long-married.
USA Today

Quindlen’s provocative novel is a New York City drama of fractured marriages and uncomfortable class distinctions.… [A]n exceptional depiction of complex characters—particularly their weaknesses and uncertainties—and the intricacies of close relationships.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) Quindlen’s quietly precise evaluation of intertwined lives evinces a keen understanding of and appreciation for universal human frailties.

A Manhattan comedy of manners with a melancholy undertow.… Quindlen's sendup of entitled Manhattanites is fun but familiar.… There's insight here …and some charm, but the novel is not on a par with Quindlen's best.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. How would you describe the state of the Nolan's marriage, at the start of the novel …and at the end?

2. Quindlen spends the first 100 pages or so depicting city life—dogs, rats, housing costs, and parking tickets. What do you find most amusing, insightful, or interesting in her portrait of urban life? Or perhaps this book is too narrowly focused on New York life for your taste.

3. In what way does Quindlen poke fun at the Manhattan elites: especially their exclusivity and sense of entitlement? Do you recognize anything in some of the characters—people you know, have met, or perhaps have read about?

4. Follow-up to Question 3: Does the following passage accurately describe the Nolan's marriage? Does it seem pertinent to any, many, or some, marriages which have lasted 25 years?

You could argue they'd lost their way, in their choices, their work, their marriage. 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.

5. Which characters do you most sympathize with? Does your attitude toward any of them change during the course of the novel? Do the characters themselves change by the end? Do they attain enlightenment—self-knowledge, maturity, a wider (or deeper) understanding of the world around them and their place in it?

6. Discuss the parking lot incident and how it created fault lines in the neighborhood? How does it affect the various characters?

7. Talk about the significance of the book's title? What are the multiple meanings?

8. If you have read Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, do you see any similarities to that book in Anna Quindlen's Alternate Side?

9. Talk about the class divisions so prominent in this novel. Do they ring true? Or do you find them overly exaggerated?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2019