Author: Sande Boritz Berger
Publisher: She Writes Press
Publication Date: May 7, 2019
Genre: Fiction, Women’s Fiction
Summary: It’s the 1970s, post-Nixon, and Alex and Donny Pearl appear to have the typical marriage, complete with two darling little girls. Alex is a devoted wife and mother, but also feels stifled by society’s expectations of her in those roles. A friendship with another couple offers something new and different, but will test her marriage and her loyalties, while also giving her room to explore and develop who she is regardless of what society dictates.
Split-Level is set in 1970s New Jersey, but it also felt like it could be anywhere, any time. The words and phrases placed this book in the 1970s (though there’s almost no mention of Nixon or what life is like post his presidency) and the location is clearly stated as New Jersey. The societal ideals are also squarely in that time period, where women were more often teachers than doctors and their most likely place was married and at home with the kids. At the same time, it also felt like it stretched a little to encompass a wider time period and could take place anywhere in the country. Every point in time has its ideas of what women should and shouldn’t do, even our current one. And, at every point, there are women who struggle against it, who fight it and try to make their own way. While it might not necessarily be married with kids, the core struggle of woman against society’s standards is still present. This book presented an intriguing story of one woman struggling between conforming to society and being true to herself, something women across generations can identify with. It may be set in the 1970s, but it could be thought of as taking place at any point in time.
I appreciated the story the author was telling, could identify with Alex’s struggles, but really struggled with the characters. Alex really bothered me. She came off as naive, a little slow, and self-serving. She went with the flow and, when it came crashing down, just wanted to maintain her innocence in it all. As a mother, I was mostly irritated with her lack of responsibility for her daughters. Throughout the book, she maintained she was a devoted mother, but there were few interactions between her and her daughters and she was always willing to let someone else take care of them while she went traveling or just wanted to paint. The other characters, as seen through Alex’s eyes as she was the narrator, all fell incredibly flat. They were one note and served their purpose in the story and Alex’s narrative. I suppose she didn’t find any of them to be exceptionally interesting? I’m not sure, but the only character I really liked was Gussie, Alex’s in-laws’ housekeeper, who came off as both droll and caring.
As much as I disliked Alex, though, I also thought it was smart to see her in conflict with just about every other character. It served to highlight how she was and felt different from everyone else around her, especially the women, and most especially the women who seemed to have it all together. Her interactions helped her craft a sense of who she was and what society demanded she be, and, when we’re in her head, we get the collision between the two as she struggled to make her place in society while also longing for something more and different.
What I found most interesting was how the story was laid out. It takes place over about a year and each chapter explores, more or less, a particular segment of time. With each chapter, the story moves along and provides a new story within the greater story. It was almost episodic, and I was a little dissatisfied when it seemed to leave off on a cliffhanger, though it was resolved in the next few pages. But it was also nice that it was laid out this way. It prevented the story from becoming bogged down in any point in time and kept it moving at a nice clip.
Overall, this was both annoying and satisfying. There were parts of it that annoyed and frustrated me, but, given time to think about it, I also developed an appreciation for the story the author wove. At its heart, it’s about about a woman (any woman) who wants something other than what society dictates.
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Thank you so much to NetGalley and the publisher for a free copy of this book. All opinions expressed are my own.
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