Alternate Side Well Written but Uninteresting

By Anna Quindlen
Random House, 304 pages

On a scale from zero to five, how should one rate a very well written novel populated with no one you find remotely interesting or likable? Anna Quindlen’s latest, Alternate Side, takes us inside a single cul-de-sac block. Residents sport surnames such as Nolan, Fenstermacher, Lessman, Fisk, and Rizzoli but the only diversity you find in this neighborhood is the imported help. How much do you care about rich, over-privileged, over-pampered Manhattanites? I couldn't care less.

Ostensibly Alternate Sides revolves around Nora and Charlie Nolan, who have been married for 25 years. They have twins, Rachel and Oliver, who still address their parents as “Mommy” and “Daddy,” though they are both about to enter elite colleges. But maybe infantilization should be expected within a family where the emotional and physical heavy lifting is done by Charity, the Nolans’ nanny/housekeeper. As everyone tells them, the Nolans have a golden marriage, which is of course, a version of Chekov’s gun that tells us they don’t. It’s also pretty obvious by the middle of the first chapter that Charlie is a jerk who wants to be a player, and a shallow and dull one to boot. He’s the sort that likes to speak in One. Word. Sentences. This annoys Nora no end and she’s grown bored with him. Not that Nora is the deep end of the pool herself. She abandoned her college idealism and now runs the Museum of Jewelry, a vanity enterprise whose owner used her own stash to build the permanent collection. Nora’s also being courted by a wealthy entrepreneur to head his private foundation, which would make Nora the player Charlie will never be.

Clearly Ms. Quindlen has other fish to fry in addition to autopsying a failing marriage. The novel’s title alludes to New York City’s infamous even side/odd side parking scheme. It also signifies class distinctions and a central who-did-what-and-why dispute that magnifies the class divide. Quindlen’s hidden objective is to deliver a mash note to New York. In this sense, the alternate sides are Manhattan’s seductive allure and mythos versus the reality of chaos, dodgy street characters, decaying infrastructure, and class-defiant rats. Among the many ways Quindlen highlights this is by abutting the street of the haute bourgeoisie with SRO apartments.  

In a sense, Quindlen offers a fictional update to Jacob Riis’s 1890 look at New York’s bifurcations in How the Other Half Lives, though the Nolans and their neighbors are pretty far north of the halfway marker on the SES pole. The novel’s central device underscores this. Charlie is ecstatic when he becomes eligible to rent one of six parking spaces in a lot near his home. Never mind that keeping a car in Manhattan is roughly as useful as owning a Zamboni in Ecuador, it bespeaks the Nolans’ wealth that Charlie thinks nothing of spending $325 a month to park a car he seldom uses. The space isn’t about being pragmatic; it’s a status-conferring form of conspicuous consumption. If the Nolans’ golden marriage is Checkov’s gun, that space is his rifle or, more properly speaking, a club through which class conflict erupts and neighbors must take sides.

Perhaps you see my dilemma. Quindlen’s novel is exceedingly well crafted and its prose flows far more smoothly than Midtown traffic. The novel falters, though, because Quindlen focuses on the wrong side of the class chasm. Although (for plot purposes) Nora visits the Bronx and abstractly sympathizes with a Latino handyman after an attack—something many of her neighbors can’t comprehend—when she ultimately must change her life, she simply slides from one version of privilege to another. Is she supposed to be our sympathetic character? From where I sit she is as unspeakably awful as everyone else in her neighborhood, simply in a quieter and more dignified fashion.

Throughout the novel characters used the phrase “first-world problem” when trying to put things into proper perspective. Alas, none of them actually has any genuine perspective. I’ll go on record and say that only Los Angeles celebrities are more smug and out-of-touch than wealthy New Yorkers. I didn’t feel anyone’s pain in Alternate Side. Do I care about people who worry about good plastic surgeons, pedicures, hold hen sessions at trendy restaurants, and bemoan how hard it is to get a good Cobb salad?  As much as I admire Anna Quindlen as an author, the experience of reading Alternate Side is like being trapped inside of one of Woody Allen’s particularly unctuous New York movies. Thus, when Nora reminds us of the many reasons she could never leave Manhattan, we can but shrug over her impoverished imagination. Give Quindlen three stars: five as a writer and one for characterization.  

Rob Weir

Alternate Side was released on March 18. I read an advance copy courtesy of Random House and NetGalley.

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