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