#LiteraryWives: The Age of Innocence

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

As always, if you haven’t already please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Cynthia @ I Love Days
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book



Edith Wharton’s novel, published in 1920, was the first by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize. Her 12th novel, The Age of Innocence was originally serialized and is one of her three novels of New York (The House of Mirth and The Custom of the Country are the other two).

It’s New York in the 1870s and Newland Archer is about to marry sweet, young May Welland. According to both of their families, this is a perfect match, further uniting them all. But then May’s disgraced cousin Ellen returns to the city after a failed marriage to a Polish count. The beautiful, willful and independent Countess Olenska makes Newland feel all kinds of new feelings and he has to choose between a conventional, easy but passionless marriage to May or an alluring and forbidden love affair with Ellen that would see them both shunned from the world they know.

My Thoughts

This was the second time I read The Age of Innocence. The first time I gave it five stars and was no doubt swept up in the romance and setting of it all. I felt a little differently about it this time!

I still really liked it – although it was hard to really get into it with all the other noise in the world. BUT I kind of hated that our main character was male. Go ahead, roll your eyes, get it out of your system. I had a hard time not rolling my eyes every time Newland refers to the women in his life, especially May. His poor sister Janey is getting to that time in life when it’s not really appropriate for her to wear a traditional wedding gown, it’s tiresome to have to provide May with the thoughts she should have about anything, he can’t read poetry out loud anymore because May always asks so many questions etc. 

And it was hard to sympathize completely with his conundrum: marry May or run away with Ellen because he was a man in his time. A wealthy man! He could have easily run away with Ellen and lived another life and there would have been few consequences beyond being shunned by society he wasn’t that attached to anyway. Poor May would have been jilted and that would have impacted her chances at a ‘good’ marriage. And of course Ellen would have forever been a scarlet woman. 

Newland does a lot of supposing about May, what kind of woman she is, what she thinks and feels but he doesn’t spend a lot of time actually talking to her. 

“There was no use in trying to emancipate a wife who had not the dimmest notion that she was not free.” 

Ultimately he does the right thing and stays with May and I did appreciate that. I kind of like when characters do the so-called right thing rather than the thing that feels good and exciting. I like that he stayed with May, that he accepted that and made a good life out of the choice he felt he had to make. I even kind of like that when he had another chance at a life with Ellen he didn’t take it! 

What has happened to my romantic tendencies??

What does the book say about being a wife?

This book has a lot to say about how to be a good wife but it’s never from the perspective of any actual wives. In the end, the battle is between the rewards of being a good and faithful wife whose husband thinks you’re dull and those of doing what you want and not settling for a husband who treats you terribly even if it means giving up the kind of lifestyle most only dream of. 

When Newland is still trying to make a case to the families for the Countess Olenska not to go back to her husband, the family’s matriarch asks if he knows what he’s asking her to give up?

“But on the material side, Mr Archer, if one may stoop to consider such things; do you know what she is giving up? Those roses there on the sofa – acres like them, under glass and in the open, in his matchless terraced gardens at Nice! Jewels – historic pearls; the Sobieski emeralds – sables – but she cares nothing for these. Art and beauty, those she does care for, she lives for, as I always have; and those also surrounded her. Pictures, priceless furniture, music, brilliant conversation. […] And she had it all; and the homage of the greatest. […] Are these things nothing? And the remorse of an adoring husband?” 

The society that they live in makes it almost impossible for a marriage to be a true partnership, to allow for two people to fall honestly in love. They’re not allowed to be alone, they have to marry within a certain set of families, everything is in service to appearances. 

“In reality they all lived in a kind of hieroglyphic world, where the real thing was never said or done or even thought, but only represented by a set of arbitrary signs.”

Newland, May and Ellen are all victims of a society that would rather see them miserable than live unconventional lives.

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! And come back in March when we’ll discuss Every Note Played by Lisa Genova. 


Nonfiction November (Week 4): New to my TBR

I can’t believe that Nonfiction November is over again! I’ve had such a great time connecting to other nonfiction readers! Thank you to our incredible hosts Leanne @ Shelf Aware, Julie @ Julz Reads, Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction and Katie @ Doing Dewey for taking this on this year and giving us all a chance to discuss some amazing nonfiction!

It was a decent month of nonfiction reading for me. I’m working my way through Barack Obama’s memoir to close out the month and if I manage it, I will have finished 10 books this month. My nonfiction reading percentage is up to 34% from 29%. The best books I read this month were Motherhood So White by Nefertiti Austin, The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey and Michaela Angela Davis (yes really) and Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward.

For this last week, Katie @ Doing Dewey is leading us through what’s new on our TBR?

It’s been a month full of amazing nonfiction books! Which ones have made it onto your TBR? Be sure to link back to the original blogger who posted about that book!

So. I do not have a good track record of actually reading the books that jump out at me over the course of this event. Like at all. Out of the books I posted in 2018 and 2019 combined, I have now read TWO. So I’ve tried to be super mindful about what I’m including on my list. Not to say that I haven’t learned about so much wonderful sounding nonfiction. Just that when the time comes to actually select books to read, these don’t seem to be the ones that come to mind.

I’m pretty sure I said the exact same thing last year and again, my track record speaks for itself.

Here are the books I made a point of writing down to try and remember to read at some point in my lifetime:


Nonfiction November (Week 3): Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert

This week Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction is taking us through the Expert prompt:

Three ways to join in this week! You can either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert), you can put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert), or you can create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

I’ve been thinking about this one for days (hence the late post) and I finally decided on a theme based on the book I’ve just started, What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, a collection of essays from fifteen different writers: motherhood and mother-child relationships.

I’ve done some reading on this topic, very casually. I’d have these books on my list and while reading I’d wonder what other books tackled this most central relationship but it’s never been something I’ve searched out. Until now.

The books about motherhood and mothers and children (specifically daughters) that I’ve read:

Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender, and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin. This was an eye-opening memoir about adoption, specifically the experience of adopting as a single Black woman, specifically looking to adopt a Black boy. Austin reflects on the relationship she had with her own mother, someone who was more like an older sister or aunt, her grandmother who stepped into that mothering role and that when one thinks of motherhood in America, it’s almost always white motherhood.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung. This one was also about adoption, but from the perspective of the adoptee. Nicole Chung was adopted from Korea by white parents. Her memoir is about her experience being Othered in her own family and her search for her birth family. She’s very candid about the complicated dynamics of her relationship with both mothers.

The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey (and Michaela Angela Davis). This one probably surprises many of you being on this list. BUT Mariah Carey is so open about her relationship with her mother and my mouth was honestly on the ground reading some of what she had to say. Their dynamics were also complicated by race, her mother holding onto her whiteness, asserting that privilege in some really fraught interactions with her biracial daughter.

In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory by Julia P. Gelardi. This one looks at the lives and relationships between Isabella of Castille and her daughter Katherine of Aragon, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria Hungary and her daughter Marie Antoinette and Queen Victoria and poor Princess Vicky. The mothers were all august figures, at the height of their empires, and their daughters all ended up in really sad, horrible situations. I’ve said it 1000 times on this blog but Julia P. Gelardi remains one of my very favourite royal biographers. Her work is well worth your time.

So now you have an idea of what I’ve read, do you have any books for me that might fit the bill?


Nonfiction November (Week 2): Book Pairings

Well. Things look a little brighter on this Monday no?

This week Julie @ Julz Reads is our host for what is probably my favourite week of Nonfiction November:

This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I love the idea of this prompt so much. One of my favourite things to do is follow up a fiction read with the nonfiction version! Here are my pairings this year!


I read How to Kill A City: Gentrification, Inequality and the Fight for the Neighborhood back when it came out in 2016. It was the first time that I was really introduced to the policies that shaped the way cities are formed, often at the expense of Black and Brown people. Pride and When No One is Watching use the theme of gentrification as the anchor for their stories, a chance to see how these policies affect the people cities aren’t thinking about.


I really enjoyed getting to read the behind-the-scenes story of Instagram. I spend an embarrassing amount of time on there and it was interesting learning about how it became what it is, how it changed our culture. More books featuring instagram and influencers are starting to come out (Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner comes to mind) but My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella was an early adopter and I loved it.

Edward VIII’s Loves

This wouldn’t be my blog if I didn’t include at least ONE historical fiction/biography pairing! I’ve characterized them as Edward VIII’s loves but one thing you should know about Edward VIII was that he didn’t fall in love with pushovers. I consider Anne Sebba’s biography of Mrs Simpson to be the definitive one. I read The Woman before Wallis this summer and it was a delight; I’m on the hunt for a thorough biography of Thelma Morgan please.

Those are my pairings for 2020! I’m looking forward to seeing what everyone else has picked this year!

And if you want to see what I recommended in year’s past, here are some of my old posts!


Nonfiction November: My Year in Nonfiction

Well, here we are. November! Did you ever think we’d make it this far?

There’s other noteworthy things happening but around here, it’s all about Nonfiction November!

This year it’s hosted by Katie @ Doing Dewey, Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction, Julie @ Julz Reads and Leann @ Shelf Aware. Each of them will host a week and we all get to benefit from some really great nonfiction discussions and fill our TBR with new titles! There’s also an instagram challenge that you can get in on.

Week 1: (November 2-6) – Leann will be kicking things off with Your Year in Nonfiction : Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November? 

One thing that the pandemic *was* really great for was reading. Especially in the early days when we didn’t really know what was to come, we didn’t know enough to be really fearful. I’ve read 116 books so far this year and 33, or 28%, have been nonfiction. I usually roll into November with around 29% of my reading being nonfiction so I’m super consistent.

I don’t think I can pick one favourite that I read this year. I read a lot of really excellent nonfiction! It started off really strong with Mary Laura Philpott’s essay collection, I Miss You When I Blink. She wrote about things I felt that I didn’t have words for. I made a lot of friends read that one afterwards and looking back now I honestly can’t believe it was *this* year that I read it! The same thing happened with Glennon Doyle’s Untamed. I think she fundamentally shifted something in me with that book and I’m a full Glennon convert now.

I read and loved Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns for the first time this year. I took it out from the library and that was a mistake. I did not make the same mistake when Caste came out this summer. I loved that one too! Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond was such an eye-opener about the cycle of poverty and how imprisoned in it so many people are in that system.

The best true crime book I read this year was definitely Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe. Another library book I wish I owned! I read about Jessica Simpson (Open Book), Meghan and Harry (Finding Freedom), The View (Ladies Who Punch), about Instagram (No Filter) and Pixar (To Pixar and Beyond) and all of them were really good!

I also read a lot of parenting books this year because my kid is now at an age where I really need to learn what I’m even doing. I loved The Whole Brain Child and No Drama Discipline by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, looking at how a child’s brain development can inform interactions and successful discipline. They were really illuminating. I loved the validation of The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in an Age of Distraction by Meghan Cox Gurdon and wanted to learn more about how to still see people this winter by reading There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids by Linda Akeson McGurk.

The worst nonfiction book I read was absolutely, no question Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.

I’ve never laughed louder at nonfiction than reading Samantha Irby’s We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. I have Wow, No Thank You on deck for this month and I cannot wait.

I think out of all of the books I read this year I recommended Glennon Doyle’s Untamed and Jesse Thistle’s From the Ashes the most. You already know about Untamed, From the Ashes is a memoir about an Indigenous man cut off from his culture, abused as a child, his addictions and homelessness and his redemption. The book was selected for Canada Reads this year (a big deal up here!) and I will never get over that a man who picked up a book for the first time as an adult has now written one, and one that is this good.

I for sure read a lot of memoirs this year: I was also drawn to social justice type books: Medical Bondage by Deirdre Cooper Owens, Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore. It seemed that the harder the world burned, the more I wanted to learn about how we got here. I have a number of these that I still want to read and I’ve been saving them for this month.

As for what I’m hoping to get out of this Nonfiction November, it goes without saying that I’m going to discover a whole host of new amazing titles for my TBR. What I’m really excited about is getting to talk about nonfiction with all of you! It’s the total highlight of my reading year!

See you next week!


Fiction feasting in October

Did October go by at record speed or what? I’m not even mad about it (even though I love October) because it means we’re SO CLOSE to Nonfiction November.

Get ready, because November is going to be a glut of nonfiction. I know some participants read fiction during the month but I am not that person. I have even forced my book club to choose a nonfiction title so I can keep going.

But before we get to all that, let’s take a look back at some of the books I read this month!

Assuming I finish the book I’m reading by month’s end, 10 of the 12 books I read this month were fiction. Three of them (Undercover Bromance, A Rogue of One’s Own and American Royals) were Romance which is very unheard of for me! Undercover Bromance was a chance to revist some of the characters from The Bromance Book Club but I would have liked more connection with the main characters from the first book. Still going to read the next one. American Royals was angsty and had a lot of feelings but it is also YA so I’m totally fine with all of that. I was warned that this book ends on a cliffhanger so I knew I’d need the next book soon. Going to make sure I have it ready after November.

And A Rogue of One’s Own! Last year I wrote about how much I loved Bringing Down the Duke and the same applies for A Rogue of One’s Own. I honestly should have bought this instead of taking it out from the library. I will need to buy the third one and if they keep being this good, I will buy every one of Evie Dunmore’s books. Keep ’em coming!

Keeping with the romance theme, I also reread The Age of Innocence for Literary Wives (come back for that post in early December) with a very different lens than I remembered the first time I read it. I also read The Queen’s Fortune by Allison Pataki, about Desiree Clary, Napoleon’s first fiance and eventual Queen of Sweden. I loved Pataki’s books about Elisabeth of Austria and I liked this one but I’m not sure that it hit me quite the same way. I had wanted to read more about Desiree since reading Desiree by Annemarie Selinko years ago. You should for sure read that one.

And then. The big guns. The books everyone has been talking about for ages. I read Anxious People by Fredrik Backman and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi.

Fredrik Backman is a Paperback Princess MVP. I love everything he’s written. Anxious People was very different in style to his other work and it took me a minute to get into it. But when I did, the emotional payoff was worth the work. Especially right now, a book about the things that really do matter, about working together to make good things happen, it’s what I needed.

I also loved Yaa Gyasi’s debut Homegoing. It has remained on my mental list of books that I really, really loved. I loved the structure, the story, it felt so original. Transcendent Kingdom is completely different. It’s melancholy and takes on this massive theme of faith vs science. The main character kind of holds everyone, including the reader, at a distance which made it hard for me to connect with it even while I was bowled over by the writing. There’s no doubt that Gyasi can write. Transcendent Kingdom gave me a lot to think about but I’m not sure I’d classify it as a favourite.

And hands down the most intense book that I read this month was Alyssa Cole’s When No One Is Watching. If you’ve read it, let’s discuss. If you haven’t, I’m not going to say anything because I don’t even know what I read! It was WILD.

I’m working my way through J. Courtney Sullivan’s new one, Friends and Strangers and I’m already relating to it 100 different ways. I loved her book Saints for All Occasions so I’m hoping this is another winner.

A fiction feast before my nonfiction binge. What was the best book you read in October?

See you next week for Nonfiction November!


Five books that have held my attention this year

This has been an uneven reading year. With so much going on, I know a lot of readers have had a hard time finding the focus necessary to get through a book. This reader attempted to read Know My Name by Chanel Miller in the early days of the pandemic, where things were getting shut down and every day felt like a new, scary chapter in a dystopian novel I would never read. The timing of that read meant I wasn’t able to do justice to a remarkable story.

But every once in a while, I found a book that took me out of 2020 completely and I happily spent hours with them, my phone on do not disturb, ignoring my child and household responsibilities. Those were blissful days. Here are some of those books:

Pages and Co: Tilly and the Bookwanderers by Anna James. Tilly lives with her grandparents above a bookstore in London. Her mother disappeared when she was little and she’s at an age where she’s wondering about who her mother was and what their relationship might have been like. This is also the age where she suddenly starts seeing characters from her favourite books come to life in the shop; suddenly she’s having conversations with Anne Shirley and she’s pretty sure her grandmother has tea with Elizabeth Bennett. It turns out that Tilly is a Bookwanderer, she can travel into stories and she’s not the only one. Soon she is initiated into a whole society of people who can do the same. There are rules to learn and secrets to be uncovered and this book, the first in a series, is a complete joy to anyone still in touch with their inner child bookworm.

The Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman. Two brother and their wives live in apartments in the same building, the family business is located around the corner. One brother has only daughters, the other only sons. The wives are pregnant again, due around the same time. On a snowy night that prevents the wives from getting to a hospital, with only a midwife and one of the daughters present, the babies are born: a son for the family with daughters and a daughter for the family with sons. This night ripples through the lives of both families for decades after. It’s one of those quiet, every-day, generational family stories and I couldn’t stop reading it.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner. If you’re looking for a gentle book with a cozy vibe and Jane Austen connections (too niche?), look no further. The Jane Austen Society follows the residents of a small English village as they deal with some of the things that have happened in their lives in the last few years, mostly as a result of the war. Each of them reads and re-reads Jane Austen’s novels to escape the realities of their lives and eventually they form a book club dedicated to her work. There’s more to it but I don’t want to give the whole thing away. This is the kind of book that demands to be read with cozy socks and a warm beverage.

Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of “The View” by Ramin Setoodeh. This. Book. Was. Everything. If you’ve ever stayed home for the day from school or work you have seen The View. I’ve seen LOTS of episodes of The View and I’ve always been curious about what it’s really like behind-the-scenes. Especially in the last several years when the co-hosts were just as likely to make headlines as their Hot Topics. Setoodeh had the access, pretty much all of them spoke with him. The give up the dirt and reading this book will make you fall down a YouTube rabbit hole revisiting the moments talked about.

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue. This book wasn’t really gentle or an escape as it deals with the Flu Pandemic of 1918. But there was something weirdly comforting about reading a book that was so eerily similar to what we’re experiencing, knowing that their pandemic ended and eventually things went back to how they were before. But this book is also kind of brutal and I wouldn’t recommend it to any reader who is pregnant for the first time or anyone who has any kind of birth trauma. This book follows a nurse, her helper, a doctor and their patients on a flu ward for pregnant women over the course of three days. It is gripping and propulsive and my favourite of Donoghue’s books.

Revisiting these books makes me want to read all of them again. What books have captured your imagination (and focus!) in the last several months?


Let’s Talk Library Holds

I didn’t start using the hold system at the library until this year.

Wow, OK, that feels good to finally say out loud.

I used the library all the time as a kid but I never used the hold system then because the whole thing with the library was going to the library to pick my books. Then I started making my own money and I stopped going to the library and spending all my money on books, a theme that continues to this day if I’m honest.

I came back to the library when I lost my job the first time as an adult. Suddenly aware of a finite amount of money to my name, uncertain about when I’d find a new job but also aware that I still needed fresh reading material, I started taking the bus to the library. That’s when I started reading Agatha Christie and PG Wodehouse and finding all sorts of hidden nonfiction gems. But still, never holds. Again, the whole point was the going to the library.

But this year, obviously, has changed the way we do everything. First we were all cut off from our libraries (I’m assuming that was the same for everyone). Sure, I could have started reading the books on my shelves that I’d bought but I’m a mood reader and suffer from FOMO thanks to #bookstagram so I need new books all the time.

Sure, I ordered some from bookstores online but the postal system was kind of flooded with orders so it took a while to get anything. Did I mention that I don’t read ebooks? Audiobooks neither.

Once the library re-opened, they were doing the curbside pick up thing. So if I wanted books, I had to use the hold system.

It was revolutionary.

I could choose the books I wanted to read and the librarians would make sure they were ready for me. I could check online and see how many books were ready and decide if it was worth the trip or if I should wait a few days. I was checking every day, willing there to be a little green number in the corner telling me that my books were ready for me. I started putting more books on hold, up to 15 at a time. Sometimes I was first in line, other times I was 27 on 8 copies.

I started getting too many all at once. I didn’t have time to read them all. I focused on reading library books but then my purchased books would show up and they’d be ones I was excited to read but I had a time constraint on my library books, ones I’d waited to read for weeks. Other people were waiting for them, renewing wasn’t always possible.

Now I’m looking at Nonfiction November, hoarding planning books to read next month. I still have fiction holds coming in but a finite time in which to read them and hold onto them. I have nonfiction books on hold and I’m hoping they are ready as close to November 1st as possible, understanding that I have zero control over the timing.

So, my question to you all is: what’s the secret to streamlining my hold system?

Now that I work from home, my library isn’t right around the corner anymore. I can really only go on the weekends. I want all the books but understand the book limits. I only have a handful of books out right now and my holds list was short and I probably wasn’t going to get anything until December but I went on a hold spree the other night so I’m very much back in the hole.

Tell me all your tips and tricks. I’m a library hold system convert but still very much a novice.


Bookish limbo

Early on in the pandemic, I had to be careful about what I was reading. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The world was so scary and awful that I didn’t have the focus for more serious books.

But then, I got used to living in a dumpster fire. And I’ve managed to read way more books since the world shut down than I was reading before.

But I’ve stumbled. Something has happened to my focus in the last few days. Did my brain finally break?

Last week, my little family and I went to visit my in-laws, near a lake. The kind of place where you bring a stack of books and the only decisions you need to make are what to drink, what to eat and what to read. I blitzed through four books in six days and made good headway through a fifth on the drive home. I finished that book the day after we got home, and finished two more in the two days after that.

And then.

I started one and read about 10 pages (of Singled Out by Virginia Nicholson) and decided it wasn’t for me right now (I still want to read it!) and then started another one (Beautiful, about the life of Hedy Lamarr by Stephen Michael Shearer) and I can’t decide if I’m enjoying it or not. When I read a fictional account of a portion of her life I really wanted to read about her whole life and this was the biography I settled on. But it’s not gripping me and I normally love movie star biographies.

The author is being a little dismissive of her so maybe I picked the wrong one. It’s a library book so on the one hand there’s no pressure to finish it because I’m not out any money. But on the other, it’s not something I can just pick up later. Especially if, God forbid, the libraries close again.

I’m finding myself in a bit of bookish limbo after months of voracious reading. And I’m not sure at all what to do to dig myself out: do I keep going with Beautiful or find something else that hopefully strikes my fancy?

Is anyone else feeling this?


#LiteraryWives: Alternate Side

It’s time for Literary Wives, a blogging club that looks at the depiction of wives in fiction!

As always, if you haven’t already please make sure to check out the posts by the other wives and join in the discussion if you’ve read Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen! There are definitely spoilers ahead.

Cynthia @ I Love Days
Kay @ Whatmeread
Lynn @ Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi @ Consumed By Ink

The Book

alternate side

Nora and Charlie Nolan have been married for a long time. They live in a beautiful house on a dead-end block in New York City, the kind of block where the residents all know one another and what’s going on with them. Their twins are about to graduate from college and it’s just Charlie and Nora living in this big house with their old dog, Homer, and assistance running the home from the housekeeper, Charity, and occasional handyman, Ricky.

Things are humming along for the most part but Charlie wants to eventually leave the City and Nora can’t imagine ever living anywhere else. One day, when coming back from a run, Nora witnesses something happening on the block that becomes the thread that unravels everything.

My Thoughts

This is definitely more of what one might call a character-driven novel but I really like it. Sometimes in books like this, it can feel like it takes a while to get to the point but I didn’t feel that way with this one. I thought Quindlen did an excellent job with the pacing of the story, giving readers enough to stay on to find out what’s going to happen.

Alternate Side had a lot of layers to it as well. I appreciated the kind of quiet take on racism, classism, marriage, feminism, and motherhood. For a book that’s less than 300 pages, Quindlen sure packed a lot in. Even the peripheral characters felt fully formed and actually brought something to the table, versus being pawns to move the story along.

What does the book say about being a wife?

I felt like Alternate Side was saying that it’s easy to let a lifetime of little things be all that keeps you together. When you’re first married, you have the rush of being newly married, of having proclaimed to all your family and friends that you love each other. And then maybe you add kids, your work gets more challenging, you have a house to look after, chores to get done, maybe you add a pet or two. Early on, I think you are conscious of being a team; to survive kids and life, you have to work together.

But then things become more rote, more everyday and you slip into a rhythm that’s hard to shake. Something like what happens to the handyman has to shake you out of your rhythm, makes you take a hard look at your partner, whether or not you’re on the same page, if you want the same things, and crucially, if you want to keep going together.

Nora is of the generation that very much sees men as additional children they have to look after. Being his wife means making his life more comfortable, going to the dinner parties and work events as his plus-one, talking him out of the things that she thinks he’s not that serious about, like moving out of the City.

“But ultimately, arranging things for someone is not the same as loving him. It’s work, not devotion.” (p. 253)

Nora has a group of girlfriends that she meets for lunch and they always talk about marriage and one friend, Jenny, has never been married. And then she meets someone and he’s not at all what anyone would have assumed she’d go for (she’s an academic and he’s a cabinet maker who has been caring for a sourdough starter for a decade) but he makes her happy and they get married. At the same time, Nora’s marriage is ending and it strikes her how crazy it is that most of us get married when we’re young and don’t yet know anything:

“You had to really, really, really like being with someone. Yet somehow that was a decision they were all expected to make when they were too young to know very much. They were expected to make all the important decisions then: what to do, where to live, who to live with. But anyone could tell you, looking at the setup dispassionately, that most people would be incapable of making good choices if they had to make that many choices at the same time, at that particular time of their lives.” (p. 249)

In the end, Alternate Side isn’t about big life events. It’s about how the little things add up to make a life, how those every day things are the ones that grate and grind and change the path you thought you were on.

“Nora had been married to Charlie without seeing him for a long time. She realized that they all assumed that if their marriages ended, it would be with a big bang: the other woman, the hidden debts. […] The truth was that some of their marriages were like balloons: a few went suddenly pop, but more often than not the air slowly leaked out until lit was a sad, wrinkled little thing with no lift to it anymore.” (p. 253)

For Nora, being a wife is one of her many roles and one that doesn’t quite fit anymore. Nora and Charlie make the decision to end their marriage quietly and mutually. Free of the burden of expectations the other has for them, of how they each see the other, they are able to explore different endings.

Be sure to visit the other blogs and get in on the discussion! And come back in December when we’ll discuss The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. I will be curious what I think about this one – the last time I read it, I gave it 5 stars.