A Window Opens — Book Review

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Sometimes you just know. And so you rearrange your life around what you glimpsed through a little window that opened for one second to show you a glimpse of something you might never get to see again. Even so, you know you will never forget the view.

Alice Pearse, heroine of Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel, A Window Opens, has an enviable life — a husband she’s crazy about, three great kids, a house in the suburbs, and a rewarding part-time job as the books editor of a women’s magazine. She even has a babysitter who’s a modern-day Mary Poppins, close and loving relationships with her parents and in-laws, and a best friend who owns the local bookstore. When Alice’s husband doesn’t make partner at his law firm and impulsively decides to open his own law practice (for which he has not a single client), Alice volunteers to become the family breadwinner. That involves making a deal with the devil — which in this case is Scroll, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture.

Like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, Alice Pearse falls down a rabbit hole and enters a strange new environment, peopled with exasperating and unpleasant characters. Alice soon discovers that Scroll, a thinly disguised version of Amazon, is the workplace from hell — especially for a book lover.  Greg, the president of Scroll (and architect of the “Paper is Poison” initiative), whose “revolutionary ideas about selling books” may not actually involve selling books at all, is thoroughly repulsive to Alice. At their first one-on-one meeting, Greg gestures to the stack of books on Alice’s desk and says:

“You really want to pollute the environment with that crap? . . . No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand. That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?”

Alice’s immediate boss, Genevieve, is more interested in how Alice reads than what she reads, asking her in an interview whether she “toggles” between her “device and carbon-based books”. Still, Alice is initially smitten with Genevieve, whom she mistakenly identifies as a fellow bibliophile. She’s flattered and intrigued when Genevieve describes Alice’s potential role at the company as the “ScrollCrier . . . someone to liaise with the publishing community at large”. After Alice joins the company, it gradually becomes clear to her that Genevieve is not her friend, and not even an effective manager :”Then it occurred to me that Genevieve might be implementing a new leadership strategy from the One Minute Manager. Befriend, then berate. Was that a thing?”

“Toggling” is one of the themes of A Window Opens — juggling roles as employee, wife, mother, friend, and daughter; switching between traditional means of connection (handwritten notes, “real” books, bookstores, in-person book groups) and modern technology (e-books, email, social media, Scroll’s “GatheringPlace”). Alice is pulled in so many directions as she “toggles” that she temporarily loses sight of what’s really important to her. Egan, who, like her novel’s protagonist, is a literary editor at a women’s magazine and a mother of three living in New Jersey, spent a year working as an editor at Amazon. In an article in the New York Times, she says, “‘That fish-out-of-water feeling was drawn from my experience at Amazon.'”

The article also mentions that the novel “is already causing a stir in the literary world, in part because it feeds into pervasive anxiety about the role of Amazon and the future of independent bookstores and publishing overall. It also arrives, coincidentally, in the midst of a debate about the work culture at Amazon.”

As I read A Window Opens, I wondered why there are so few novels that take place in office settings, given that so many people spend the majority of their waking hours in cubicles and conference rooms. Certainly, conflict abounds in offices — drama is not only found in other workplaces, such as hospitals and schools. An article in the Guardian asks, “Why don’t novels do work?”, stating that “we spend most of our lives making a living, but it’s a rare novelist that tackles this centrally important subject.” Even novels that appear to be about work actually aren’t, the article claims; “the books are set in offices, but the fulcrum of the plots tend to be about the characters’ private lives.” In her novel, Egan nicely balances (or should I say “toggles”?) the story of Alice’s career and the story of her personal life.

On the advice of early readers, Egan changed the original ending of the book. I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t say anything more, but do me a favor: please read this wonderful book and let me know what you think of the ending. I’m dying to discuss it!

August Reading

The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.
Natalie Babbitt, Tuck Everlasting

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Getting ready to settle in with Shirley Jackson this afternoon.

At the risk of sounding like a cranky middle-aged person, I don’t like the fact that August has become the new September. Labor Day used to signal the end of summer, and even that seemed too early, given that September is usually the most glorious month of the year. One good thing about this unwelcome change is that more books seem to be released in August. Maybe publishers are thinking of August as the beginning of the fall season — traditionally the prime time for publication?

The trend towards shortened summers has bothered me for years (although not nearly as much as it must bother people trying to run seasonal businesses).  “Autumn creep” also annoys Ann Patchett and her staff at Parnassus Books — their blog post, Summer’s Not Over — Keep Right on Reading and Relaxing, echoes my feelings:

Do not despair. Despite all those back-to-school flyers about pencils and backpacks, summer is nowhere near over. (At least not for grownups, right?) It’s August! The sun’s out, the days are long, and every week brings a new crop of fantastic new releases in your neighborhood bookstore. So plant yourself defiantly in a hammock and insist on what’s yours: one more month of leisurely reading time. Reality can wait its turn.

9781400063369The Parnassus staff has some great book recommendations, including two of my recent favorites: The Light of the World, a beautiful meditation on loss and healing, by Elizabeth Alexander, and Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship, by Robert Kurson, as well as a new novel my colleague Molly absolutely loved: Fishbowl, by Bradley Somer. The August selection for Parnassus’s First Editions Book Club is Circling the Sun, a biographical novel about Beryl Markham by Paula McLain (The Paris Wife). I enjoyed Circling the Sun very much, although some of my coworkers weren’t enamored with McLain’s writing style. It inspired me to reread sections of Markham’s memoir, West With the Night, which was one of the first books my book club read, back in 1988.

9781101873472-1I’m really excited about several books published this month. Melanie Sumner’s debut novel, How to Write a Novel (a paperback original), is a delight. I loved every page of this book, and what I enjoyed most was the voice of the 12.5-year-old (and yes, that’s how she refers to herself) narrator, Aristotle. While trying to write a book, following the instructions in a writing manual, Aristotle stumbles upon some family secrets. Fans of Where’d You Go, Bernadette? will adore this smart and endearing novel — and since almost everyone loves Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, that means almost everyone will enjoy How to Write a Novel. You could also look at this book as a Harriet the Spy for grownups.

9780307268129Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox, also features a protagonist with a memorable voice. Isabel, a wife, mother, and middle school teacher, is crippled by grief and guilt when her best friend dies in a car accident. Days of Awe is a story of self-discovery, as Isabel redefines her relationships with everyone she loves. It’s by no means an unrelentingly sad book — Isabel, who makes plenty of mistakes, is filled with clever, self-deprecating humor.

9780385540049Meg Mitchell Moore’s The Admissions (available August 18) is not just another book about college admissions and the associated parental and teenage angst. This insightful and delightfully witty novel is about much more than getting into college: the secrets the members of the upwardly mobile Hawthorne family are keeping from each other, and the admissions they must make. I loved Moore’s previous books (The Arrivals and So Far Away) and I’m not sure why she hasn’t received more acclaim. Please look for a Q & A with the author on Books on the Table later this month!

a-window-opens-9781501105432_lgComing on August 25 is a book that touched my bookselling heart — it’s sort of a mashup of Goodnight June (Sarah Jio) and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. A Window Opens, by Elisabeth Egan, makes me want to gush, so I’m not going to hold back — I adored it! It’s the clever and entertaining story of a full-time mother and part-time editor who suddenly needs to find a “real” job — and lands at “Scroll”, an up-and-coming company with a diabolically quirky corporate culture that plans to develop e-book lounges. (At least, that’s the party line Scroll feeds our heroine, a book lover.) Perfect for all those readers who don’t want to read “dark” or “depressing” books,  the novel pays tribute to independent bookstores — and tells a heartwarming family story at the same time.

Don’t rush the end of summer — there’s still plenty of outdoor reading time!