A Window Opens

But Should We Close It? Or Keep It Open…

a-window-opens-9781501105456_hrElisabeth Egan’s debut A Window Opens is the newest addition to the Mom-Lit genre. Our protagonist, Alice Pearse, is a part-time working mom of three, married to Nicholas Bauer, an attorney who just threw his laptop across a conference room table upon learning that he wasn’t made partner. That ill-handled moment has Nicholas hanging a shingle out for himself and Alice moving back into full-time work, full-time mom-guilt, and full-time stress.

Lara: The cover of this book screams chick-lit. I was surprised you picked it.

Jennifer: I know, right? Well, there’s a backstory, of course. My aunt recommended it. She’s a faithful reader of Snotty Literati, she reads great books—like, seriously great, ranging from Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev to Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, and she said something about how this book was fun like Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (which l loved), so I actually bought it instantly. And now I’m debating whether or not I’ll actually show her this review.

But, yes, let’s just get this out there. It’s not chick-lit, per se. It’s mom-lit (the name of a genre I thought we coined, but apparently did not). It’s not a dumb romance. And, for the record, I really hate “chick-lit.” There were a couple elements of chick lit in here that I really dislike—and I’m not sure I could pinpoint my dislike until this book. I really dislike when women’s clothes’ brands and accessories and purse brands are name-dropped. For some reason—and I know I’m no fashion plate—I find it a little condescending. As if that’s what interests women most. There was some of that here (just a little bit). Generally speaking, though, this was mom-centric fiction.

Lara: It definitely is. This is a breezy book that is a perfect beach read (and the complete opposite of what Bill Gates recommends you should read this summer) for any mom, and especially working moms. I do think that Egan captured the struggle that a lot of working moms face when they work for a demanding boss who doesn’t always appreciate the demands of working and parenting.

When Alice realizes that her part-time book editor job at You magazine will no longer cut it while hubs is starting his own practice, she gets a fall-in-her-lap opportunity with Scroll, a start- up that had me drooling. Scroll was in the market to design reading salons allowing customers to sit in cushy leather chairs and sip on wine while downloading a book onto their preferred reading device. Scrollers could also visit the salon’s room of First Editions and browse hard-to-come-by tomes. It was reading and relaxing for the literary elite and the technologically-savvy. Sounded like a dream come true. But it was a bit tooo good to be true.

Matters are complicated by Alice’s boss, Genevieve, a corporate suck-up who uses the home office as her North Star. Genevieve is hard-to-read: at one turn, attempting to connect with Alice on a personal level, and barking orders and throwing Alice under the bus, at the next. Add to this Alice’s best friend, Susanna, owner of the brick-and-mortar book store, The Blue Owl, which Scroll is poised to put out of business, Alice’s dad’s recurring cancer, and Nicholas’ secret swigs of alcohol as he struggles to build his business, and Alice is at the center of mayhem. It’s a perfect storm, that at the end, wraps up a little too tidily.

Jennifer: Well, um, okay. I’d say that this is neither the perfect beach read, nor is it the perfect storm. I could name a dozen books for the beach for you right now—and they aren’t necessarily “literary.” Go read Sandra Tsing Loh’s latest. Check out Jennifer Hayden’s graphic novel called The Story of My Tits. You need something more? Go for Elena Ferrante. (Okay, she’s uber-literary.) Use that summer, girlfriends!

As for the perfect storm, it just wasn’t happening for me. Janet Burroway—in discussing how to write fiction—said, “. . . only trouble is interesting.” Similarly, Charles Baxter writes the following: “Say what you will about it, Hell is story-friendly. If you want a compelling story, put your protagonist among the damned.” In A Window Opens, nothing is all that bad. Dear Lord! I was a little blown away by the lack of danger here. The husband throws a laptop. Big deal! Throw a punch. The husband drinks too much. So what? Turn him into an alcoholic. Alice needs to work full-time, because money is tight. Really? Make them sell their house, start worrying about paying train fare into the city, take their kids off of the swim team or gymnastics or whatever-the-fuck. Her job is not what she expected? Is it ever? Minimally, show her peddling the video games she hates so much; make her feel the self-loathing, deal with the soul-complications, suffer a little. Her friendship is threatened by her new job (think of local bookstores vs. Amazon): rupture the relationship. That cancer? Have her miss her father’s death, and live with that. Her husband goes away for the weekend? If Egan wants to keep it clean (and that’s fine), have him tempted and resistant. When her child almost gets hit by a car, let him get hit!

I need to quote Hemingway for the bottom line: “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

 Lara: Apparently, I need to clarify – It was Alice’s perfect storm. Not a literary perfect storm. What you are asking for is depth and I don’t think, sorry if this sounds offensive, this is a genre known to deliver a lot of depth and complication. It’s going to be more surface level, more 30-minute comedy versus half-hour drama. And for those who want that kind of book – they want to escape and be entertained—this book will do that. Hitting heavy issues in a character-rich, multi-storied way? Not so much. If you want everything you are asking for, it wouldn’t have been mom-lit or chick-lit. It would have been literature.

When we tag “lit” on the end of an identifier, it seems to imply “lite.” Wouldn’t you agree?

Jennifer: Perhaps. Though Where’d You Go, Bernadette is on that mom-lit list (as is Bossypants by Tina Fey)—and I’d argue there’s depth and complication there. I don’t think that “fun” and “depth” are mutually exclusive. This is admittedly a sensitive issue for me. I just like certain aesthetics in place. But I like “fun” stuff. Damn it! You mustn’t forget that I’m practically a superfan of “The Walking Dead.” And I loved The Hunger Games trilogy! One of my favorite movies is Superbad, and I still treasure both Wayne’s World and Zoolander! I do admit that if I’m going for an “escape” (I’m not a fan of that concept, though), I’d be more likely to hit up a humor book written by a famous comic or a graphic novel or something. I heard, actually, that Rob Lowe’s book is good. Seriously, that sounds more likely me.

That said, before you get mad at me, let’s talk about things we liked in this book. What did you like?

Lara: Where’d You Go, Bernadette and BossyPants are not Mom-Lit. There’s more depth to both of those. And to say they are is just saying that because the books feature mothers. I know men who have read and liked Bernadette. Sadly, I can’t see a man reading this book.

I liked Alice’s love of books and literature. I loved her job as a book editor for a magazine (hello love!). And the initial idea of Scroll sounded really cool, like a place I would visit. Unfortunately, it changed as the book went on and I disliked it as much as Alice did. Egan does a nice job capturing the kids. Their comments, language, and interests were very age-appropriate. I felt a pang when her oldest, Margot, practically begs her mom not to come to Career Day. You think it’s because she’s embarrassed to have her mom at school, but you learn it’s actually because Margot is being bullied. So sad.

I also loved how her dad interacted with her via text. Very sweet and funny. I liked this book more than you did, and I think Egan could have a stronger book in her. I would read her again.

Jennifer: I can agree with all that. Egan is the books editor at Glamour, by the way, so (a) she does know literature (and you can tell from the novel that books are really her thing), and (b) I’m probably shooting myself in the leg with this book review. I do constantly question whether or not it’s ever appropriate for one writer to negatively critique another, whether my job is necessarily confined to that of literary cheerleader, and whether or not I need to pick one or the other—am I a writer or a book reviewer? I guess that, for me, it all stems from a genuine love of literature. I am probably not the one for this book. And, yeah, the protagonist in my unpublished novel is a mom, but it’s a far cry from mom-lit.

I know you’re worried about us coming off as elitist. I don’t want that either. I definitely feel duty-bound to discuss books in terms of Art. And, in fairness to this writer, we are—by no means—discussing trash. The book is highly inoffensive, definitely readable, and I’m partial to New York City stuff.

So, here’s the thing. We’re sitting here in Panera, writing our review. When it’s my turn, you’re reading Father’s Day by Simon Van Booy. You just commented that it’s a sweet book. We discussed it. It sounds pretty good. It’s kinda, maybe, light? But you said it evokes an emotional response (unlike this book?). I read the first page of it. There seems to me to be a subtle nod to J.D. Salinger there. The frozen duck pond. Skates. Hand-holding. The language is elegant. So, really, light is fine. Maybe something that is “just entertaining” must evoke real emotion? I don’t know. We can stop now.

The real question is this: do I let my aunt read this review?

Lara: I think you let her read it. We all come to books in different ways and take different things from them. I don’t think she will disown you. But who knows? Maybe you’re now out of the will.

Next Up!

Join us in June for our review of Charles Bock’s newest, April and Oliver. It’s got a great cover, so it’s already earned some points in our book.

Happy reading, Snotties!

_______________________________________________________________________

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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com 

Want to see what Lara is up to? Go to www.onelitchick.com

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