An artful novel in stories from the author of A Short History of Women (2009) and Our Kind (2004).
Marie and Simone survived World War II in France and came to New York with American husbands. Elizabeth, Marie’s tenant, is the mother of an adolescent son. The other voices shaping the novel include Margaret, the interim head of the school Elizabeth’s son attends, and Helen, a fellow student in the painting class Simone and Marie take together. There are men’s voices, too—the painting instructor, a policeman, Marie’s son—but their stories figure only to the extent that their lives intersect with those of Walbert’s female protagonists. That this is a novel concerned with the thoughts and experiences of women of a certain age is, all by itself, worthy of note. But Walbert does more here than simply appeal to a demographic that is seldom represented in fiction. She situates the lives of her characters within the context of a changing New York and a changing world, and she also takes some stylistic risks with her storytelling. Marie’s house is in Chelsea, but it’s clear that the neighborhood she settled in as a young bride is just barely connected to the neighborhood Elizabeth navigates. Marie’s home is a time capsule of another New York; the black-and-white TV set with rabbit ears is just about the only thing that separates it from the Gilded Age. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is struggling to negotiate the expectations set by other parents at her son’s progressive—and aggressively 21st-century—school. Throughout, Walbert uses footnotes to move between inner and outer, past and present. This technique is especially effective in depicting Marie’s childhood, a subject that she doesn’t willingly discuss. And all of this is suffused with a mournful air occasioned by climate change. Strange storms haunt this novel, as does the fear that New York—the city now, the city’s history—will soon be underwater.
Elegant and elegiac.