A Tale of Two New Yorks

By by Carolyn See,
who can be reached at www.carolynsee.com
Friday, September 1, 2006


By Anna Quindlen

Random House. 269 pp. $24.95

"Rise and Shine" is a literate and pleasing women's novel about two sisters: Meghan Fitzmaurice, beautiful beyond belief, happily married to Evan and mother of a preternaturally lovable teenage son, Leo, who will loom large in the plot. Meghan is also the host of a national morning talk show, "Rise and Shine." Put plainly, she's a woman who has -- or seems to have -- it all. She's always seen from the outside here, described affectionately enough by Bridget, her younger sister, who, by comparison, doesn't seem to have much of anything at all.

Where Meghan is beautiful, Bridget is pretty; where Meghan is married to the rich and handsome Evan, childless Bridget is carrying on a very low-maintenance affair with Irving Lefkowitz, a hard-boiled Jewish cop just a few steps this side of elderly. While Meghan instructs the entire nation on upwardly mobile trends, Bridget is employed as a social worker in the Bronx, dealing with "lost public assistance checks, arson fires, black eyes, trips to family court, foster care placements, and calls from the cops to keep up with breaking news." Clearly, there are two New Yorks here, and each sister dwells in a different one. Bridget isn't the jealous type, but she can't help but be aware of the disparity between their lives.

"Every Saturday morning," Bridget observes ironically, "unless she is covering the Olympics, the Oscars, a disaster, or an inauguration, my sister and I go running together in the park and have breakfast either at her apartment or at the Greek diner down the street from mine. She will tell you she is forced to set a slower pace because I don't exercise enough. She sees this as evidence of my essential sloth." Within the first four or five pages of the novel, then, we know that we're dealing with a retelling of the truism that the mighty must inevitably fall. The woman who has everything will soon find herself with her lovely nose in the dirt, and it will be her humble, unassuming (if somewhat tiresome) sister who must help her to rise again. But this classic story gains greatly in intensity because of the place where it is set -- the magnificent and intimidating city of New York, the crucible in which most American worldly success is defined. "I will say I live in New York," Bridget announces, this time without any irony at all, "because it is the center of the universe." Thus, a simple tale of two sisters, one full of hubris, the other of virtue, becomes a prismatic reflection of the metropolis itself.

"Bad news comes to you in strange ways in New York," Bridget observes, as she finds out the first part of the bad news that will propel this novel. Or, more discursively: "The black car could be the official icon of New York, or at least the New York Evan and Meghan call home. . . . New Yorkers with pretensions but middle-class means take one for airport trips or special occasions, an anniversary at the River Cafe or a black-tie event at the Waldorf." (And so on, for a dozen more lines.) Or: "It is impossible to get lost in New York because, by some defiance of the law of averages, you keep running into people you know on the street, on the subways, and in restaurants." (The common-sense explanation for this is that the island of Manhattan is about the size of 20 junior colleges pushed together, but ah! if it's the center of the universe, there has to be a Larger Reason than that.) After her first misfortune, the hitherto indestructible Meghan confides to her sister, "You know what [New York] looks like? It looks like a mouthful of sharp silver teeth. It's the scariest thing you'd ever want to see. It's all right if you're nobody, and it's great if you're on the way up. But man, it is a place that is cruel to used-to-bes. Divorced wives, has-been writers, rich guys who aren't rich anymore."

What happens early on in "Rise and Shine" is that the amazingly lucky Meghan takes a hideous double hit in her fabulous life. Her husband dumps her without warning. The next morning -- thinking the microphone is off -- she utters true (but madly inappropriate) words on her talk show and is summarily suspended. She crumbles emotionally and flees the city. Bridget is left to try to make sense of it all, flabbergasted by the goings-on of her brother-in-law, trying, as best she can, to take care of her painfully hurt young nephew, Leo. She's not too bright about Leo, finding him an internship at the very scary place where she works in the Bronx, but her intentions are so good you just know nothing bad will happen.

She also has the temerity to go on with her own life, getting pregnant with twins at age 43, even though her aging cop boyfriend is anything but happy about it. It seems that Bridget and, by extension, the author believe in the efficacy of good deeds and good hearts, even in that scary place with its fabled indifference to hapless individuals, whether they be famous or not.

The sisters have faced adversity before and certainly will again, but this kind of novel demands a happy ending and gets it. Some unfortunate events occur that seem to be the fault of one sister but are actually due to the ignorance of the other. One of them will end up with a man whose last name is Prevaricator, which doesn't seem to bode all that well for the future. A minor character suffers a life-changing tragedy, but all's well that ends (fairly) well, so they say.

Anna Quindlen has developed an enormously likable writing voice, and by telling her tale through the humble voice of an unassuming naif, she allows her readers the illusion that we all might live securely within the velvety pink confines of the New York maw, safely out of the way of those silver teeth. She makes the city accessible and downright neighborly.

(That's why we call this stuff fiction, I guess.)

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