Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wednesday, May 6, 2015: Maximum Shelf: A Window Opens


Simon & Schuster: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

Simon & Schuster: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

Simon & Schuster: A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan

Simon & Schuster: Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave

A Window Opens

by Elisabeth Egan

Readers of Glamour magazine will recognize Elisabeth Egan's name. As books editor, Egan has recommended great reads for years. With her deliciously smart and open-hearted first novel, Egan is now sure to become a highly recommended author in her own right.

Alice Pearse has three beautiful children, a sexy husband, a sweet but neurotic family dog and a fulfilling part-time job as an editor at You, a women's magazine. She lives across the street from her children's elementary school in the New Jersey suburbs and enjoys a close relationship with her nearby parents, especially her father, who speaks with a voice prosthesis due to the laryngectomy that halted his cancer. Life is comfortable, sweet and safe.

Then her husband, Nicholas, learns his law firm has no intention of offering him a partnership and decides to hang his own shingle--that is, after hurling his laptop across the office in a blind rage that guarantees he won't be staying on with the firm while seeking other employment. Panicked at the loss of Nick's income and the cost of starting an independent practice, Alice realizes she must quit You and find a full-time job. Doing so means leaving behind coworkers who have become her close friends and the supervisor who acts as her treasured mentor, but she knows she has to make the change for the sake of her family. After a few dead-end leads, Alice lands a position as a content manager at a hot new startup called Scroll. A subsidiary of giant retail corporation MainStreet, Scroll plans to "reinvent the bookstore experience" by offering physical stores where customers will browse e-books instead of hardbacks, lured in by the promise of cushy reading lounges complete with leather armchairs and foot massages, membership discounts, and access to selected first editions of classics, the only physical books Scroll will permit in its boutiques. Although somewhat befuddled by the hip jargon--an "agnostic" is a reader who "toggles" between "carbon-based" and electronic formats--and not entirely sure what a content manager is, Alice loves the idea of becoming a tastemaker for a company that seems to embody the future of reading, to be "a mom capsule expanding into an innovator."

Unfortunately, her best friend Susanna hotly disagrees. Susanna owns The Blue Owl, an independent bookstore in Alice's neighborhood, and she sees Alice's employment by a company that eschews the physical book as akin to a pact with the devil. Although Alice assures her that "a rising tide lifts all boats" and Scroll's encouragement of readership will result in more books sold across the industry, Susanna's already sick of customers showrooming at her store and then going online to get the cutthroat markdowns. Alice is involved at The Blue Owl not just as a customer and friend, but also as co-facilitator of the No Guilt Book Club, a popular seasonal event, and Susanna takes her career move as a defection and a betrayal.

While Alice's prospects seem to look up, she worries that Nick is losing ground. Since opening his own office, he has started drinking more than she feels is reasonable, but her efforts to talk to him about it result in arguments and both of them pretending not to see too many beer bottles in the recycling bin. Still, between Nick picking up some of the slack around the house--making breakfasts and lunches for the children, taking on some of the chauffeur duties--and the help of their invaluable nanny, Jesse, Alice eventually finds she has "abdicated almost all household responsibility." With a bit of support here and there, she manages to keep her career and her family life in balance, if only just. But then a family tragedy strikes, Scroll's overseers start to make radical changes Alice cannot countenance, and Nick enters a downward spiral, and she begins to wonder if "leaning in" is just a first step toward falling over.

Egan offers a gentle but telling look at a time when having it all often means doing too much, and crossing the line between working mother and overworking mother is all too easy. Her heroine begins with hopes of finding fulfillment but realizes, "The key to taking a stab at doing it all was getting comfortable with rarely hitting the bull's-eye--in fact, being hopelessly left of center most of the time." Less a cautionary tale than a celebration of finding your own groove, Alice's adventures in corporateland ring especially true as she watches what she considers a great and pure idea quickly morph into a bizarre revision that tries to cram too many marketing research theories into practice. No one wants to accept Alice's opinions, even though she arguably fits the target demographic better than anyone else in a company full of young hipsters who "answered e-mails after midnight while tending their chickens and building lamps from spare parts salvaged at flea markets."

Egan has not only given readers a heroine who could be anyone's best friend, favorite sister or down-to-earth neighbor, she has also written a first-rate satire of big retail's attempt to roll books into the pervasive one-stop shopping, one-size-fits-all mentality. A reminder that staying true to yourself means not only knowing what you need but ignoring what everyone else tells you to want, Alice's open window will give readers a breath of fresh air. --Jaclyn Fulwood

Simon & Schuster, $26, hardcover, 9781501105432

Simon & Schuster: Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll


Elisabeth Egan: Inspired by Life

photo: Beowolf Sheehan

Elisabeth Egan is the books editor at Glamour. Her essays and book reviews have appeared in numerous publications, including Glamour, O, the Oprah Magazine, People, Huffington Post, the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times Book Review and the Washington Post. A Window Opens is her debut novel. Egan lives in New Jersey with her family.

What's it like being Glamour's books editor?

I'm definitely the least glamorous person on the 30th floor of the World Trade Center. My shoes are more sensible than most of my colleagues' and sometimes in meetings I pretend I'm familiar with young celebrities I've actually never heard of--I'll jot their names in the margin of my notebook for Googling later.

But seriously, Glamour is a warm and wonderful place to work. I've worked for women's magazines for most of my career, and many of my longest, deepest friendships trace back to cubicles at 350 Madison Avenue or 4 Times Square, both former headquarters for Conde Nast.

As for the work itself: I get paid to read. What more can I say? If you'd asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, this is the job I would have described. A few years ago, my younger daughter told us she wants to be a bunny holder when she grows up. When we inquired about what one does in this line of work, she was very matter of fact: a dog walker walks dogs; a bunny holder holds bunnies. I almost told her there's no such profession but... you never know. Reading galleys, meeting authors, editing book excerpts and essays, working with smart, creative people--this is my bunny-holder job.

How much of Windows Opens is based on your life?

The scaffolding of the story was definitely inspired by my own life. I live in New Jersey; I have three kids; and my anxious dog really does take Prozac. But, unlike his fictional counterpart, my husband has never thrown a laptop across a room, and he rarely drinks more than one beer in an evening--much to my chagrin. I located this story in several worlds I know well, but I fictionalized liberally within those worlds and also took some liberties with the timeline. In real life, my dad died of throat cancer 11 years ago, before my kids were old enough to get to know him. It was fun to imagine the character who is based on him playing whiffle ball with the character who's based on my son. As the dad of two sports-averse daughters, my dad would have loved that.

How does it feel to make the transition from writing essays and reviews to novel-length fiction?

"Humbling" is the first word that comes to mind; and then "humiliating," but not in an entirely bad way. I shudder to think of the way I used to judge a book: not just by its cover, but also by the paper it was printed on, the Jiffy envelope it arrived in, by the acknowledgements page and the blurbs and author photo. When a publicist called to check in, I'd shrug and say "Meh. Not for me," as if I was declining a free sample of salami at the grocery store. I'd like to think I was at least polite about it, but I definitely had no appreciation for the lonely, sweaty operation of writing more than 2000 words. I hadn't even written fiction since college! But I was about to turn 40 and I was tired of rationalizing about why I'd never tried to write anything longer than a book review. I was like a runner who dropped to the curb after two miles and shouted at other runners as they cruised by--sometimes praise, sometimes encouragement, always wondering what it would be like to complete the marathon. Now I know. When I opened the Jiffy envelope containing my own galley, I felt like I'd arrived at the finish line.

Alice tries desperately to find that delicate balance between family life and full-time career our society has come to refer to as "having it all." Do you think anyone can "have it all"?

As an editor, I appreciate your use of quotes around "having it all." It's an amorphous, over-analyzed concept, deserving of skepticism and unworthy of the stress it causes. I think the definition of "having it all" changes according to your stage of life, where you live and what you really want. Here's what makes me happy right now: having a family and a job, and also having time to relax with my family, be thoughtful in my job, be a decent friend, sister and daughter and occasionally to exercise. All these things don't necessarily happen on the same day, or even in the same week.

You have these little moments when you know you're off kilter, focusing on the wrong things. A few years ago, I gave my husband an unsigned Valentine, still wrapped in plastic with the price tag on. I didn't have time to fill it out. He thought this was hilarious, but I took it as a sign that I needed to recalibrate. Another example: when my kids were really little, I used to save time on laundry by having all of them strip down for dinner. My husband and I would race in from work, toss the onesies and overalls down to the basement and then settle in to eat our spaghetti with a trio of kids in diapers and underwear. I thought I'd devised a clever system for sparing us the nuisance of stain removal--until my older daughter said, "Mom, can we please keep our clothes on while we eat? This is getting really weird." Again: a subtle cue to re-evaluate my insane race against the clock.

I've noticed that this "conversation" is always set up in terms of family and work, but there are so many spokes under those umbrellas--all equally important at different times, and all adding up to the many-textured world we were promised by Free to Be You and Me.

What's this No Guilt Book Club thing all about?

It's a joint collaboration between me and Marisela Santiago and Margot Sage-El of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, N.J. For a small fee, readers are invited to come to the bookstore for an evening of personalized recommendations, wine and food, a 20% discount--and, of course, scintillating conversation. It's better than a book club at your house because potential reads are available for browsing and nobody has to shove the junk mail in a drawer or pretend they always have a little bowl of Godivas on their coffee table. The no guilt part comes from my firm belief that you shouldn't feel badly about putting down a book you don't like. In my club, you can just show up and eat the brie--no flagellation of self or literature required.

What can we expect to see from you next?

I hope you'll see me signing books with a straight face. Honestly, I haven't been asked to sign anything since my high school yearbook came out in 1991. In the meantime, my shoes are laced up and I'm plodding my way to the next finish line. --Jaclyn Fulwood


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