Expansive coming-of-age novel set against the backdrops of Paris in the 1970s and Manhattan in the ’80s.
Insightful, dryly witty teenager Charlotte Sanders and her older sister Lea have grown up in Paris with their American parents, Astrid and Frank. The family occupies a sprawling apartment in the faubourg Saint-Germain, and their chaotic, bohemian lifestyle revolves around the dynamic Astrid, a native Kentuckian with an impenetrable armor of charisma and glamour. Within this atypical setting, narrator Charlotte is a typical teenager: She frets over her first love, quarrels constantly with her prettier sister and idolizes the perfect symbiosis of her parent’s marriage. But when Astrid, whom Charlotte both adores and resembles, warns her daughter not to love her so unconditionally, the scene triggers a silent alarm. Astrid’s affair with a key member of Poland’s anti-communist movement is soon revealed, and the family is wrenched apart, launching Charlotte on a tumultuous journey to adulthood that takes her to Manhattan with her mother and far afield from the sure footing of her childhood. The fracturing of the Sanders family is also the point at which the pace of the novel begins to accelerate, hurtling us toward a conclusion set nearly 15 years later. The author invites readers to view this family intimately over time, all the while coloring their tribulations with a wider perspective. When Astrid is forgotten by the renegade lover for whom she risked everything, Charlotte observes, “My mother couldn’t compete with history.” In the novel, thankfully, there is no such competition, only the seamless intertwining of the personal and global. McAndrew (Going Topless, 2004) has immense talent for calling up vastly different settings in precise detail, and her observations, as realized by her clear-eyed protagonist, are deliciously sharp-edged. Charlotte remains a pleasure to spend time with, even as life determines her course.
Dense with context and deeply nuanced, yet effortlessly readable. McAndrew is a real find.