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.
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.
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.