Marriage is like a den—it’s “not the most important room in the house”—says a minor character in ALTERNATE SIDE. The character may be minor (and unmarried), but her pronouncement is a major thematic concern in Anna Quindlen’s latest novel.
Nora and Charlie Nolan live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in an exclusive neighborhood of handsome town houses and door-manned apartment buildings. Its residents’ comfy lives are cushioned by nannies, maids, and a communal handy-man named Rickie—all people of color, all working for white people, which gives rise to another of the novel’s running themes: class distinction.
The only fly in an otherwise pristine ointment is parking, which follows alternate-side-of-the-street rules. It’s a major irritant unless, like the Nolans, you’ve earned a highly-coveted parking spot in the lot on the corner. For Charlie Nolan this is winning the jackpot.
It’s also where the trouble begins. A brutal incident occurs one morning when Rickie’s van blocks the lot’s entrance. As rich white people close ranks, Nora begins to question her privileged status, realizing she may be on the “alternate side” of the issue from her wealthy neighbors—and even from her husband.
All of which prompts Nora to question her attachment to Charlie: can the two make their marriage the most important “room” in their house—or is it stuck as the den for good? Have they been too long together, too long taking one another for granted, no longer even trying?
Quindlen writes with a sophisticated ease that carries readers smoothly from page to page. She probes (though not too deeply) personal and cultural fault lines, presenting an astute, yet intimate, portrait of urban affluence. Neighborhood dwellers and their idiosyncrasies are well drawn, a testament to the author’s wit and deft touch at character and dialogue.
As a few reviewers have pointed out, some might find the novel overly focused on New York life—a fair assessment. Nonetheless, Alternate Side is a fine exploration of family, marriage, class, and race—well-done, engaging, and a pleasure to read.
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.