Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen: When a Favorite Author Stumbles

Alternate Side by Anna QuindlenFiction – Literary
Released March 20, 2018
304 Pages
Bottom Line: Skip it.
Affiliate Link: Buy from Amazon
Source: Publisher (Random House


I adore Anna Quindlen (both her fiction and nonfiction) and saw instances of her brilliant, trademark writing in Alternate Side, but the plot was a bit boring and I know she can do better.

Plot Summary

When a violent incident happens on Nora and Charlie Nolan’s wealthy Upper West Side block, Nora begins to see cracks in her marriage, friendships, and throughout the neighborhood.

Why I Read It

Anna Quindlen is one of my go-to authors. I’ve adored most of what I’ve read by her (Every Last OneOne True ThingMiller’s Valley and Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake) and think she just “gets” women. 

Major Themes

Marriage, New York City life, class, friendship

What I Liked

  • Alternate Side is a true New York City book. The setting stood out far more to me than any of the characters…and Quindlen brilliantly captures its quirks (and there are many).

The dirty little secret of the city was that while it was being constantly created, glittering glass and steel towers rising everywhere where once there had been parking lots, gas stations, and four-story tenements, it was simultaneously falling apart. The streets were filled with excavations and repair crews, the older buildings sheathed in scaffolding cages.

  • It’s an easy, relatively uncomplicated read (which I sometimes need and suspect you do too!).
  • The title is brilliant and will truly resonate with anyone who has lived in NYC. NYC has something called “alternate side parking” (a law that dictates which side of the street cars can park on specific days to improve traffic flow and make room for street sweepers, etc), which causes residents who park on the street to go temporarily insane every time they have to move their cars. It brings out everyone’s true colors and is sort of a microcosm of New York City B.S.
  • While the writing didn’t bowl me over like it did in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake and Every Last One, it is quintessential Quindlen and there were numerous passages that reminded me why I love her writing…especially when she talks about women’s experiences.

The slightly aberrational spouse was a status symbol, too. The husband who cooked. The wife who played golf. The husband who took his children to school. The wife who ran her own business. Of course, it was chancier with the women than with the men. You couldn’t push it too far. The marathoner wife who made partner – perhaps. The wife who could benchpress her own weight and made the cover of Fortune – too emasculating. The men, on the other hand, got unlimited mileage out of performing so-called women’s tasks as long as they also had substantial disposable income and significant business cards.

What I Didn’t Like

  • Alternate Side is about a lot of things, but is also kind of about nothing. Is it about an Upper West Side neighborhood, but a somewhat boring one? Is it about a New York marriage, but a somewhat boring one? Is it about an incident in the neighborhood, which wasn’t as earth-shattering as promised? I couldn’t figure it out. An American Marriage and The Mothers were both about a lot of things, but they all gelled together into a coherent story that worked. Unfortunately, I’m not sure Alternate Side had much of a plot and what plot was there felt muddled. 
  • Some people prefer Quindlen’s nonfiction to her fiction, but I know from Every Last One and One True Thing that she can write novels where the plot and the writing shine. That didn’t happen here.
  • I think this book would have worked better as a nonfiction essay collection about life in New York City for, as Quindlen says, “New Yorkers of a certain sort”, where the “life in New York part” is intentionally the star.

A Defining Quote

There was a shadow government on the block, a shadow government that knew where all the bodies were buried, a system of mutual dependence, one group needing services, the other employment. Nora was never certain where the balance of power fell.

Good for People Who Like…

Quiet stories, social commentary, New York City books.

Try These Books Instead…

Anna Quindlen at her best:
Every Last One (Fiction, my review)

Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake (Memoir, my review)

Two books that tackle a lot of issues, but aren’t overwhelmingly about any one of them:
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (my review)

The Mothers by Brit Bennett (my review)

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  1. PAt @ PFN wrote:

    I enjoyed your review. I enjoyed Miller’s Valley. I wonder sometimes, if writing suffers, when new books come out often.

    Posted 3.22.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I do think that, but with some other authors…I don’t think Quindlen has been publishing super often?

      Posted 3.23.18 Reply
  2. Well, I’m definitely glad I’m reading Every Last One first because at about the halfway make I’m loving that one. I’m still going to read Alternate Side (or possibly listen to it) and will probably review the two books together like I did with Claire Fuller’s last year.

    Posted 3.22.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      That would be perfect! And so glad you’re loving Every Last One!

      Posted 3.23.18 Reply
  3. Aw, too bad. I do need plot and a focus as well as good writing.

    Posted 3.22.18 Reply
  4. Kay wrote:

    The snippets you shared were interesting, but it’s good to know going in that it is a quiet book about whatever. I would find it hard to top Every Last One. I loved that book. I need to reread it or maybe listen to it.

    Posted 3.22.18 Reply
  5. Allison wrote:

    I loved Every Last One, but I was also a little underwhelmed by Still Life with Breadcrumbs. I won’t rush out to read this one either, but man, she can nail it with the observations. If there’s more like the aberrational spouse quote that you shared up there, I might have to read it just for that.

    Posted 3.22.18 Reply
  6. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Anna Quindlen. Sounds like this is not one to start with!

    Posted 3.22.18 Reply
    • Edie G wrote:

      Anna Quindlen is a really terrific author, and as the reviewer said, the rest of her work are all gems. She gets women. I have read everything she has written. This one just fell terribly short.
      Lots of Candle, Plenty of Cake will resonate with women of a certain age. She is so wise. I hope you fall in love.

      Posted 4.23.18 Reply
      • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

        I agree and Lots of Candles is one of my all-time favorite memoirs!

        Posted 5.1.18 Reply
  7. Madeline wrote:

    I’ll definitely give this a pass. The only Quindlen I’ve read is “Miller’s Valley” which was OK but didn’t send me searching for her other works.

    Posted 3.22.18 Reply
    • Edie Gleason wrote:

      Read One True Thing and Lot’s of Candles Plenty of Cake and I bet you will be hooked. All of her other work is really good. Promise.

      Posted 4.23.18 Reply
      • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

        Also Every Last One!

        Posted 5.1.18 Reply
  8. Beth F wrote:

    I think I’m going to see if Ellen Archer can save this … I may bail! I DO love Quindlen’s nonfiction and essays. I used to read her Life in the Thirties column in the NYTimes waaaaaaay back when, and loved them.

    Posted 3.23.18 Reply
  9. I’ve not read anything by Quindlen, but this sounds good! The pros you listed appeal to me a lot more than the cons bother me 🙂

    Posted 3.26.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Haha – well, good! I try to write reviews so you can decide if something is for you or not regardless of how I felt about it…glad to know this one, at least, succeeded!

      Posted 3.28.18 Reply
  10. Catherine wrote:

    I agree-ish about this one. Not in my top three of her books, but I think I liked it a bit more than you did. The marriage aspects.

    Posted 3.26.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I did love the marriage quotes…she always nails those!

      Posted 3.28.18 Reply
  11. I’ve been unsure about Quindlen’s fiction, though I think I might try One True Thing. I absolutely loved Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, though, so thank you for that recommendation!

    Posted 3.27.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Oh yay!!! That’s definitely my favorite of hers…man does she nail the woman’s perspective!

      Posted 3.28.18 Reply
  12. Amy wrote:

    If you are interested in a nonfiction essay collection about life in New York, try one of her early books called Living Out Loud. It’s what made me an Anna Quindlen fan – a collection of her NY Times columns about living in New York while being in her 30s (she won a Pulitzer for the column).

    Posted 3.28.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Ooooh – awesome! I just finished my current audiobook, so this could very well be my next one! I’ve been wanting to read some more of her nonfiction.
      Thanks for the recommendation!

      Posted 3.28.18 Reply
  13. Toni Nako wrote:

    I really enjoyed this book, as I have all of Anna Quindlen’s books. This one is definitely for one who gets the NYC attitude, etc. I grew up very near where Anna went to HS, and we’re roughly the same age. I’ve worked in NYC; it’s a unique place and difficult to explain. The people on her block / neighborhood are similar but show only certain “faces” in public. Especially telling is the owner of the “lot” who gives the Christmas parties every year! Who knew her secret. Good book.

    Posted 8.10.18 Reply

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