By Elisabeth Egan
Simon & Schuster. 370 pp. $26
The jacket of Elisabeth Egan’s debut novel evokes Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” with fashionable glasses and bright, pop-y colors. “Hello!” the book announces. “I am fun! Take me home!” Like Semple’s book, Egan’s novel is both smart and entertaining, and has the added pleasure of some insider publishing juiciness. Egan, the books editor at Glamour, clearly loves books and so do her characters. This novel is so full of passion about the written word — and on paper, no less, hurrah for us Luddites! — that I have no doubt that Egan will have penned her second novel by the time I’ve finished writing this review.
At the start of “A Window Opens,” Alice Pearse’s husband, Nicholas, has just lost his job at a tony New York City law firm, flaming out in spectacular fashion. He returns to their home in suburban Filament, N.J., annoyed and smelling of alcohol. Alice suddenly needs a full-time job to help support their three school-age children, superstar nanny, aging dog, house, car and the Anthropologie ballet flats of which she is so fond. She reluctantly leaves behind her sweet part-time gig as books editor at You magazine and begins to paper the town with her résumé.
A job offer comes in via Twitter for a position at Scroll, a slightly fuzzily drawn, very high-tech book-selling venture. Scroll is owned by the Cleveland-based MainStreet company, which owns and operates shopping malls that feel like quaint small towns. When Alice mentions the job opportunity to her best friend Susanna, the owner of Filament’s beloved independent bookstore, Susanna goes through the roof. Scroll’s intended goal is a string of “bookstores” wherein customers will browse shelves and then purchase the titles on their e-readers.
I found Scroll’s business model confusing. Unlike Amazon and Barnes & Noble, selling e-readers doesn’t seem to be a part of Scroll’s game plan. And since MainStreet is a brick-and-mortar retail company, why wouldn’t they just operate bookstores? If they aren’t going to sell bound books, why on earth would they put so much money into creating “showrooms,” when God knows, scores of horrible people already use actual bookstores for this exact purpose?
Those objections aside, the scenes of Alice interviewing and then working at Scroll are hilarious. The corporate lingo and impenetrable job titles alone would be enough for me to run for the hills, but Alice feels slightly turned on by all the brushed steel and science-fiction-movie starkness of her new office. It’s her job to talk to literary agents and editors about their upcoming titles, and in turn to pitch them Scroll’s super-luxe reading experience, which comes complete with recliners, gummy bears, as well as first editions of classics behind glass. (Note to all my friends who own bookstores: Bowls of gummy bears at every register would not hurt the cause.)
While Alice is trying to navigate her role as a suburban mom in this glitzy new venture, she’s also dealing with some heavy stuff at home: The cancer that gave her beloved father an electrolarynx speaking device (which Alice and the children call “Buzz Lightyear”) is back, and her husband’s new solo law practice seems to involve more beer-drinking than billable hours.
Though the novel’s focus is on Alice’s work/life balance, the true heart of the story, and what I found most moving, was her relationship with her ailing father. His illness is presented with refreshing straight-forwardness and humor, and his text and e-mail missives are copious, as you might expect from someone who can no longer speak. Alice is truly plum in the middle — caring both for her small children and her aging parents, as well as bearing the financial brunt for her family. There is some glossiness here — brand names of clothing stores and detailed descriptions of footwear — but when she’s thinking of her father, all of that melts away, and Alice is truly a person to love and to root for.
There are some odd red herrings, though, such as Nicholas’s drinking, which is presented with alarming frequency, especially because Alice describes her husband as a “borderline teetotaler” early in the book. I, too, am married to a borderline teetotaler, and if my husband suddenly got fired from his job and began to fill the recycling bin with mounds and mounds of amber bottles, I would be extremely unhappy. The whole matter is resolved very quickly — one blackout, and then, voila, immediate redemption — and I didn’t buy it.
But “A Window Opens” is not a marital love story. Alice and Nicholas are fine, and so are the children. This novel is a love story about novels and the parents who introduce them to us. It made me want to call my father and tell him what I was reading, and if that isn’t a lofty goal, then I don’t know what is.
Emma Straub is the author, most recently, of “The Vacationers.”