Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen*****

alternateside“If nobody can tell the difference between real and fake, who cares if fake is what you’re showing?”

Score another one for Anna Quindlen. Often prodigious writers lapse into formulas, becoming predictable, but not Quindlen, who brings a snappy, original tale to the reader every time. She makes us think, and she makes us like it. Big thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for letting me read it free and early. This book is for sale now.

The story is built around a controversy that develops around that most prized acquisition among financially successful New Yorkers: a parking place. Local ordinances have a Byzantine set of rules involving parking on alternate sides of the street, and the neighborhood’s homeowners are sick to death of going out to move the car. A privately owned parking lot leases spaces, but there aren’t enough to go around, and a seniority system makes some residents intense; think of the rent-controlled apartments that get passed down like family heirlooms, and then you’ll have the general idea.

Ultimately, however, the parking place is metaphor, and perhaps allegory, for other aspects of life that go much deeper, and the way Quindlen unspools it is not only deft, but also funny as hell in places.

New Yorkers will appreciate this novel, but others will too. This reviewer is one of those visitors that Quindlen’s characters regard with scorn, the people that pop into town, gawk, buy things, and then leave again. But I’m telling you that despite the title, this is not just—or even mainly—a book for New Yorkers.

The audience that will love this book hardest is bound to be people like the main characters: white middle-class readers old enough to have grown children. But the take-down of petite bourgeois assumptions and attitudes is sly, incisive, and clever as hell.

At one point I began highlighting, for example, the many ways in which the phrases “you people” and “these people” are wielded.

Here is a final word of caution: if you are contemplating divorce, this may tip you over the brink. On the other hand, maybe that’s just what you need.

Highly recommended to those that love strong fiction and occasionally are visited by that “crazy liberal guilt thing.”

Straying, by Molly McCloskey*****

StrayingThis title is the first fictional work McCloskey has published in the US, but surely it cannot be the last. This addictive novel came to me free and early, courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. It becomes available to the public February 20, 2018.

Alice has returned to Ireland. As a young woman of 24, she had gone there intending to visit, gain some perspective about what to do with her life, and then return to Portland, Oregon, but instead she met Eddie and married. “I was not sure how grown-up love was supposed to feel.” Now she is more mature and single again; she returns to Ireland and in a deeply intimate, gently philosophical narrative, tells us about what happened, and about the affair with Cauley that was instrumental in ending her marriage.

Here I must confess that I have old-fashioned ideas about cheating on a spouse. If your marriage is solid, you should respect it and be faithful. If your marriage is dying, get out before you start something new; don’t sneak around and tell lies. If your marriage is troubled and you aren’t sure what you want, address that first, but don’t poison the well with a fling. It’s unethical and unfair. Have some integrity, for goodness sake.

And so, why am I reading this novel, and more to the point, why am I loving it? It goes to show that a strong writer can make me want to read almost anything, whereas an indifferent one may start with a promising scenario that fizzles. McCloskey pulls me in and doesn’t let me go.

The cover art tells the reader right away that despite the title, this is not erotica. Those looking for a novel that will make them breathe hard will have to find something else. Straying gives us something far better, in my view. I feel as if Alice is my dear friend. I usually read several titles at once, drifting from one to another over the course of a day or evening. But Alice interrupts my literary smorgasbord because in a way, I feel disloyal for reading anything else. The narrative here, told in the first person, is so deeply personal that it’s as if she is sitting across from me at a coffee shop (or since we’re in Ireland, in a pub perhaps), and she’s spilling the beans, confessing everything that she did, and the consequences that followed. She isn’t beating herself up Anna Karenina-style, nor is she proud of her mistakes; rather, she is explaining what happened, what she’s learned from it, and what she still wonders about. It’s not prose you can walk away from until it’s over.

Those that love excellent fiction should buy this book and read it. If you can get it cheap, do that; if you have to pay full jacket price, do it anyway. You don’t want to miss this one.

The Guilty One, by Sophie Littlefield *****

Sophie Littlefield, author of the Bad Day series (A Bad Day for Sorry, etc) has hit a new level of excellence with The Guilty One. Many thanks to Net Galley and Gallery Books for the DRC! This book goes up for sale on August 11, and if you love a good novel, this one is for you.

Our chief protagonists are Maris and Ron. Maris is Calla’s mother…or she was. Calla is dead now. The court has convicted Karl of her murder, a heartbroken, enraged loss of control over a bad teenage breakup. Ron is Karl’s father, and as we open our first setting, he is considering jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. At the last minute he decides to phone Maris, and ask her whether to jump or not.

theguiltyoneIt shows a good deal about Ron’s character, weak and lacking in integrity, that he not only phones Karl’s victim’s mother to dump the responsibility on her, but also wears a windbreaker to the bridge because his travel guide mentions that it is cool and windy there, even in warm weather.

The last time I read Littlefield’s work, it was the Bad Day series. The first book won multiple awards and was deeply satisfying, a savvy, witty dig at domestic abuse. The same topic enters this discussion in a more oblique fashion. In her earlier series, she seemed to lose momentum as the series unfolded, and it appeared to me that she couldn’t decide whether she wanted to write a series that was mostly of the detective fiction genre, or mostly romance. Here, she has taken a giant step away from mystery and detective fiction, and this straight-up fictional story is told with grace, maturity, and authority. It’s obvious right there in the first few pages. I was reading a handful of galleys at the time, and my first note to myself was “See now, this is good writing.”

Maris has lost her marriage, and at first it appears to be a consequence of Calla’s death—so few couples can experience the death of a child and stay together—but as the story progresses, it becomes clear that a split was in the works long before this. And Maris makes a decision that resonates with me. She drops everything and everyone, more or less, and without thinking, going purely on instinct, starts over in a new place, with a greatly reduced standard of living. At first I wonder whether Maris is merely slumming, seeing how the other half lives, but deep down, I have to trust Littlefield not to do anything so shabby, and she doesn’t. Maris is the one we root for, the one that drives the plot forward and pulls us in.

Ron and Deb have stayed together as Karl has gone through the trial and been found guilty, but the strain is there. Ron starts out entirely believable and not very likeable. He never becomes the stand-up individual that Maris is, but he is a dynamic character, complicated and interesting. He undergoes a lot of change as the story progresses.

Throughout this riveting novel, there was never a moment when the veil lifted and I recalled that these characters weren’t real. I raced toward the end with a sense that I had to see how it came out, and then when it was over, I felt a sense of loss, wanting to turn another page and find Maris still there so I could check in with her, like a good friend. And that is ultimately the hallmark of great writing.

Get online. Take a bus. Get in the car. Hijack a plane—okay, maybe not—but do what you need to do in order to get a copy of this accessible, compelling new fiction. Littlefield rocks it. You can pre-order it now, so you will be able to read it right away. If you do, you too will want to stand up and cheer!

Among the Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont *****

amongthetenthousandJack is an artist living in New York City. Sometimes he sleeps in the apartment where he lives with his family. Sometimes he sleeps in his studio, when his work is really going strong. Just as sometimes he sleeps with his wife, whereas sometimes, he sleeps with whoever. This story is about the fallout that occurs when one of the random women he has taken up with, then discarded comes back with a vengeance, and though she intends to punish Jack through his wife, instead she ends up punishing him and his wife through their children, who are the unhappy recipients of the series of randy e-mails the woman he’s just jettisoned prints up and delivers to his building. My god, my god. And before I go farther, let me say thank you to Net Galley and Random House for allowing me a sneak peek. This book will be published next month.

Jack and his latest-fling have been prolific writers, it seems. It takes a large, somewhat weighty box to hold all the hideous missives that have passed between the two of them. And though it’s a rotten thing he’s done to his wife Deb, it slips out early on that she has married him only after dating him while he was married to someone else. Hey, what goes around, comes around.

Unfortunately, Jack is sufficiently garrulous enough with his recent conquest that he shares his children’s names with her, and when eleven year old Kay accepts the box to take upstairs, she is thinking that it is nearly her birthday, and perhaps what is inside is a gift that she can’t wait two weeks to know about. And then one of the papers on top of the pile has her name on it. It isn’t underlined, nor in bold or colored ink, but one’s name tends to jump out at one. And so the steamy sex talk she is way too young to see in any context whatsoever is accompanied by the sentence, “I know about Kay.”

It’s almost enough to permanently traumatize a kid. Well, maybe we can forget that “almost”.

The events are so horrible that any sensible reader would turn away rather than face what comes next, but Pierpont has a fresh, immediate writing style that pulls one in, almost to the extent that we care about those kids as if they were our own. We keep reading because we have to know what happens to them.

Several times I grew angry enough with Jack that I found myself senselessly typing angry retorts into my kindle comments. Nobody sees that stuff but me, but typing seemed better than waking my spouse to inveigh against this self-absorbed asshole, this swine who has the nerve at first to blame Kay for reading mail not meant for her eyes. Oh please!

And when Deb equivocates, I want to smack her, too. Sure, I know I said that what goes around comes around, but once you have children, the whole equation is altered, and you have to act immediately on their behalf. She feels a little sorry for Jack at first, at the alienation his children display toward him, and I just want to shake her. Don’t feel bad for him, the pig! Feel bad for your kids! Hello?

The kids are really what the book is all about, what makes it worth reading. They aren’t little big-eyed Holly Hobbie dolls, but both innocent and insolent, naughty and adorable, disturbed, devastated, and resilient as well. They flounder; they struggle. And when the story ends, the spell isn’t really broken until one accepts that they are fictional, because believe me, the whole thing feels so very real.

Pierpont is a damn good writer. She will be a force to be reckoned with in the literary world, a writer to watch. I can’t wait to read whatever is next!
As for you, you should get this novel when it comes out July 7. Maybe you should even reserve yourself a copy. What a fascinating book, by a strong new author.