Anna Quindlen made her reputation as a keen observer of women’s lives (among other things) while an award-winning columnist for the New York Times. Her novels continue to reflect that skill. In “Alternate Side,” she tracks Nora Nolan at a pivotal time of life: children raised, mostly; career solid, mostly; marriage intact, mostly. She loves New York City, even as it’s settled down, like the edgy girl in college “who showed up at the reunion with a blow-dried bob and a little black dress, her nose-piercing closed up as though it had never existed.”
But when a neighbor with anger issues beats the neighborhood’s Hispanic handyman with a golf club, the incident becomes a lever, prying open questions about truth and loyalty, stereotypes and ambitions, love and tepid coexistence. The plot here is less important than the character sketches.
Quindlen is at her best in the regular exchanges between Nolan, who oversees the popular but artistically disregarded Museum of Jewelry, and a not-really-homeless man who nonetheless begs on its steps. They charge each other with inauthenticity, and their rationalizations illustrate how life can be made easier or more difficult depending upon how much you really care. We know Nora cares, because we are meant to identify with her. We care, right? So her difficulties ring true. How she sorts them out is both curious and, ultimately, affirming. Mostly.