About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

#8 - Prospect Park West

Another brace of light, entertaining "Chick Lit" books in this, my last week of penurious leisure. And, y'know, I'm starting to feel a little bloated, as if I'd eaten a whole bag of Milanos in one sitting.

Even so, Prospect Park West, by Amy Sohn (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009), was pretty much what I expected: a lives-of-the-upper-middle-class satire that neither demands nor surprises too much. As the jacket blurb suggests, the book follows the stories of four restless young mothers in Brooklyn's Park Slope neighborhood:

"Brooklyn's famed Park Slope neighborhood has it all: sprawling, majestic Prospect Park; acclaimed public schools; historic brownstones; and progressive values. Among bohemian bourgeois breeders, claiming a stake in Park Slope has become a competitive sport.

"In the park, at the coffee shops, and on the playgrounds of the neighborhood, four women's lives come together during one long, hot Brooklyn summer. Melora Leigh, a two-time Oscar-winning actress, frustrated with her career and the pressures of raising her adopted toddler, feels the seductive pull of kleptomania; Rebecca Rose, missing the robust sex life of her pre-motherhood days, begins a dangerous flirtation with a handsome neighborhood celebrity; Lizzie O'Donnell, a former lesbian (or 'hasbian'), wonders why she is still drawn to women in spite of her sexy husband and adorable baby; and Karen Bryan Shapiro finds herself consumed by two powerful obsessions: her four-year-old son's well-being and snagging the ultimate three-bedroom apartmentin a well-maintained, P.S. 321-zoned co-op building. As the women's paths intertwine (and sometimes collide), each must struggle to keep her man, her sanity ... and her playdates."

Some reviews (warning: the title of the second isn't family- or work-friendly) suggest that PPW is funny only if you know the neighborhood. I don't think that's true; personally, the closest I come is occasionally visiting friends in Prospect Heights, which Sohn dubs "ToPoSlo" -- Too Poor for the Slope -- but I was still entertained. Sure, there are local variations, but competitive mothering is still competitive mothering. (Of course, this may have something to do with the fact that Sohn includes a shout-out to my own adopted home town, calling it "Park Slope outside of the city" and "a community ... with cool, smart artistic people who weren't boring or at all suburban.")

The first review I read calls the book mean-spirited, and I guess to some extent, that's true. The four principals are somewhat one-dimensional. Rebecca and Karen are the most interesting, but not particularly likeable; Lizzie is the only likeable one, but not terribly compelling; and Melora (reportedly based loosely on Brooklyn-born actress Jennifer Connelly) is just plain annoying. Nonetheless, it has some funny moments. The Park Slope Food Coop (here, the "Prospect Park Food Coop") features prominently, and will ring true for anyone with a co-op background: the leftover hippies, the all-too-earnest member-worker responsibilities, the obligatory protest. Karen's overprotective mothering makes her neighbors wonder if her son, the ridiculously-named Darby, is disabled somehow, what with the knee pads and all. A post from a local couple "into soft swinging" on the Park Slope Parents web site piques the lonely Lizze's interest, but draws an avalanche of outrage from most of her neighbors: "'My parents were swingers in the '70s and as a result I have been in psychotherapy my entire adult life.' 'This is not the forum for such inquiries. Why don't you post this on an AOL chat room instead of polluting our parenting board with your sick desires?' And the predictable 'I'm definitely interested in swinging but usually it's at the playground with my son Jasper.'" And Rebecca's encounters with "the sanctimommies," who chide her for leaving daughter Abbie with a sitter two afternoons a week and practice elimination communication with their six-month olds (albeit with mixed results), are hilarious.

Again, this wasn't a life-altering book, but I did appreciate the somewhat ambiguous ending. I don't do full-on spoilers, but will say Karen learns too late that her coveted Carroll Street co-op isn't quite what she expected, and Rebecca's sex-starved fling with Melora's hunky Aussie husband Stuart is, er, both briefer and longer-lasting than she'd anticipated. There was one plot line involving Melora's light-fingeredness and Karen's social climbing that wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly for my tastes, but hey -- you can't have everything.

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