Fiction: Real Estate, Parking and Violence: A Novel of New York


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Anna Quindlen

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Maria Krovatin

ALTERNATE SIDE
By Anna Quindlen
284 pp. Random House. $28.

In real estate, there’s more than a semantic difference between a dead end and a cul-de-sac. A dead end can be a trap; a block that stops at an inaccessible barrier, backing up to a park (best case), a commercial building, a police station, a hospital, a school. A cul-de-sac, French for “bottom of the bag,” connotes coziness: a safe place for a child to learn to ride a bike or play street hockey. A home on a block visited only by those who live there or those who are lost has a cachet that’s hard to put a price on.

There aren’t many residential cul-de-sacs in Manhattan, which, to foster easy navigation, was laid out on a uniform grid north of Houston Street, beginning in 1811. Rarity is a quality that drives housing prices beyond astronomical to the real estate equivalent of a winning Powerball ticket. Which means that Charlie and Nora Nolan, the couple at the center of Anna Quindlen’s exquisitely rendered ninth novel, “Alternate Side,” are sitting on a gold mine. The home they bought two decades ago on the Upper West Side is where they raised their twins, but the “kids” are now seniors at Williams and M.I.T. Charlie, a disaffected investment banker, is ready to cash in and trade New York winters for a home on the back nine somewhere in the Sunbelt. Nora, who runs a museum devoted to fine jewelry, can’t imagine living anywhere but New York.

So it’s good news, at least temporarily, when one of Charlie’s dreams comes true: He has finally secured that most precious of Manhattan commodities, off-street parking. There’s a brownstone-size gap between two of the buildings on the cul-de-sac. Long ago, fire gutted a home on the site and the owner never redeveloped it. Instead, the lot has been divided into six parking spaces. When Charlie finally scores one, Nora hopes he’ll stop talking about selling the house.

If a novel about “first-world problems,” as Nora’s daughter calls them, already has you rolling your eyes, remember that Quindlen, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary while a New York Times columnist, is one of our most astute chroniclers of modern life. This novel may be too quiet for some, too populated with rich whiners for others, but it has an almost documentary feel, a verisimilitude that’s awfully hard to achieve. There’s no moment that feels contrived or false, except perhaps to non-New Yorkers who may find it impossible to believe that anyone would consider $350 a month for a parking space a bargain too good to pass up.

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The story is told from Nora’s point of view. Much like Quindlen, she’s a sensitive and introspective observer of people and what makes them tick. She’s also keenly aware that the residents of her tightknit block are white and the nannies, housekeepers and handymen who work for them are not.

This factors into the story when her handyman, Ricky, inadvertently blocks access to the parking lot and a neighbor with well-established anger management issues takes a 3- iron to his van, shattering the handyman’s leg when he intervenes.

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