#LiteraryWives: Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

Literary Wives is an on-line book group that examines the meaning and role of wife in different books. Four times a year, we post and discuss a book with this question in mind:

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Don’t forget to check out the other members of Literary Wives to see what they have to say about the book!


Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

Goodreads synopsis: Some days Nora Nolan thinks that she and her husband, Charlie, lead a charmed life—except when there’s a crisis at work, a leak in the roof at home, or a problem with their twins at college. And why not? New York City was once Nora’s dream destination, and her clannish dead-end block has become a safe harbor, a tranquil village amid the urban craziness. Then one morning she returns from her run to discover that a terrible incident has shaken the neighborhood, and the fault lines begin to open: on the block, at her job, especially in her marriage. 


Warning: Spoilers ahead!!

Nora and Charlie appear to have a good marriage; they’re happy in their careers, their children, they parent well together, and they’re comfortable together. Even they couldn’t see the cracks in their marriage.

Signs that their marriage might be going south:

  • Their marriage had become like the AA prayer: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.’ Or at least to move into a zone in which I so don’t care anymore and scarcely notice.”
  • Nora finds it boring to listen to her husband talk about his day. “At a certain point simply pretending to listen, looking attentive, nodding and umming from time to time, seemed like enough of a sacrifice.
  • Charlie wants to move out of the city, and Nora wants to stay. Nora avoids saying things that might bring up the subject of moving.
  • Nora and Charlie fundamentally disagree about the violent incident in the parking lot. “She had never been so tempted… to say to Rachel, your father is wrong. Jack Fisk is a terrible person who did a terrible thing, I can barely stand to look at your father when he defends him.”
  • Nora feels jealous when she sees happy couples.
  • They each found the other’s work inconsequential…”
  • When they were first married they had vowed they would never be one of those married couples who sat silently at dinner because they had run out of things to say… So they repeated themselves a lot.
  • Charlie had grown up thinking that the “basic maintenance of his life would be handled by women.” Including his wife. “But arranging things for someone is not the same as loving him. It’s work, not devotion.”

What’s keeping them together:

  • Enjoyment of raising their kids together
  • “…Charlie’s carnel response to her continued unabated.
  • Charlie felt like a “warm, safe towel”

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Nora’s experience as a wife is probably pretty common – days go by, she’s happy, more days go by, life is busy, kids are growing, husband is happy, a good dad, more days go by, the kids are grown, suddenly the two of them together matter again and she realizes maybe they’re not on the same page anymore. When did this happen?

Is this something that could have been avoided somehow? Or was it going to happen no matter what they did to prevent it?

You could argue they’d lost their way, in their choices, their work, their marriage. But the truth was, there wasn’t any way. There was just day after day, small stuff, idle conversation, scheduling. And then after a couple of decades it somehow added up to something, for good or for ill or for both.

“Want what you have,” it said inside the waistband of one of Christine’s bestsellers, some patterned capri pants, it sounded so life-affirming until you really thought about it, and then it sounded like capitulation.

Is surrendering to your marriage a bad thing? Maybe it depends on who you are and what’s important to you.

The thing to focus on here is that Nora is able to make a choice about her life that many wives aren’t in the position to do.

And, as a friend pointed out to her at the end of the book, she can also choose to look at her marriage as a success despite how it turns out: “You stayed together for almost twenty-five years, and you had two great kids. Your marriage was a huge success. Don’t let anybody tell you different.

Do you think a marriage can be a success even if it ends in divorce? Do you think not wanting to ‘settle’ is reason enough to end a marriage? (The problems in their marriage are more subtle than in many of the other books we’ve read, which has me thinking about the grey areas of marriage and divorce, rather than the more obvious ones.)


Next Literary Wives: December 7th, 2020 – Join us in reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton!

26 thoughts on “#LiteraryWives: Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I thought of you and #LiteraryWives when I read this a few years ago. I’m posting a review of another book that would suit your group on Wednesday. You may already have come across it – Sue Miller’s Monogamy. I’d love to see what you thought of it but I bet you already have a long list to get through.

    • Naomi says:

      It’s going on the list anyway, Susan! New books are always tempting for us. And ones that are relatively easy for everyone to get their hands on – Sue Miller is a good bet. You’ve been a great source of ‘wife’ books for us! 🙂

  2. whatmeread says:

    I couldn’t tell from your review whether you liked this one or not. I liked your lists of signs, and I see you also noticed that this one is about more subtle (and maybe actually more common) signals that there is trouble in the marriage.

    • Naomi says:

      Yes, I liked it! I actually meant to add something about Nora’s love of New York – I really liked her descriptions of why she loves it so much. But then I guess I got distracted by marriage – ha!
      And I loved that their marriage seemed to be more typical – a breakdown that doesn’t involve infidelity or deep dark secrets.

  3. wadholloway says:

    I enjoy this meme. I’m never going to read the books, except by accident maybe – my 200 audiobooks/year include a lot of American general fiction. After three and I won’t say ‘failed’ marriages now, but three that came to an end, I think about this a lot. Marriage #2, we had kids, we’re still bringing them up after 40 plus years, we still talk, yes, definitely a success (and I think a lot of 60 year olds would rather live apart anyway).

  4. Lisa Hill says:

    I’ve been married twice: the first time for 20 years and the second time is coming up to 24 years next January. I reckon I’m pretty good at marriage, though I always say that the next time I’m going to make sure he’s got some handyman skills…

    • Naomi says:

      The good thing about more than one marriage is that you know how to improve on the next one! Before I met my husband, I told myself I would never marry anyone with pet allergies… If I were ever to do it again (God forbid) I think my criteria would be more stringent than that (I’ve thought of a few more things to add to the list)! 🙂

  5. ilovedays says:

    I’m glad you made the observation about her unusually privileged position as a woman on the globe – her ability to make the choice to leave a marriage. After child-rearing is done, the qualities that make marriage work for someone might change…Nora needs more stimulation…Charlie needs to be in a place where he matters and doesn’t feel second-rate. I also think the incident with Ricky revealed a difference in Nora and Charlie’s deeper values. Charlie closed ranks with Jack, his own kind, who he saw as threatened; in doing so joined ranks with privilege, at least in Nora’s eyes.

    • Naomi says:

      I agree, and I’m glad you brought that up because I don’t spend a lot of time on the incident itself, but I do think their difference of opinion about it is a big deal. I can imagine it would also be hard for them to want to live in two different places.
      Overall, I thought her experience of being a wife is a privileged one – she gets to make a choice (that doesn’t involve death!).

  6. annelogan17 says:

    This sounds really fascinating, and the idea you quoted at the end about a marriage being successful despite ending in divorce is a brand new idea to me, but it makes sense. Did you raise happy healthy children together? Then that seems like a success to me, even if you don’t end up together on your death beds.

  7. The Paperback Princess says:

    I was away when this was posted so I’m just now getting to everyone’s reviews! Sorry!
    I really liked that her friend framed the marriage as a success! I think it can be hard to prioritize your marriage when you have so many other things going on. I think a lot of couples take it for granted that the marriage will still be there and intact when you come back to it with full attention and that’s not always the case.
    You’re right that the issues were way more subtle than most of the books we’ve read but I also felt like they were more real and common. That said, I agree she was in a unique position to be able to do something about it and be fine!

  8. buriedinprint says:

    Quindlen is a writer I’ve always meant to read more of–this one sounds like my cuppa too. (The first I read was Black & Blue, what a page-turner!)

    • Naomi says:

      This is the first book I’ve read of hers in years and years! I can’t even remember which ones I’ve read and which I haven’t. She strikes me as a sure bet for a good read, though.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s