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Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Book Review: Carnegie Hill: A Novel by Jonathan Vatner

Pepper is an heiress. She's really never had to work, but she's wanted to, and she's had a variety of jobs, but she's never figured out what she's good at or what she wants to do. She's hoping, after moving into the Chelmsford Arms apartment building in tony Carnegie Hill in Manhattan, that being on the board will help her to feel more like an adult. As will getting married to Rick.

In addition, being on the board means she will meet more people in the building and make friends. They're all much older than her but that's okay, she wants the benefit of their experience. She sees these happy older couples and wants to know what they know--how to be happy.

The book then switches narrators quite a few times (although always circling back to Pepper), and shows us the inside of the marriages of Birdie and George, and Francis and Carol. And things are not as rosy as they seem. In fact, the longer she lives there, the more facades she uncovers and the more Pepper starts to realize that no one is as put-together as they seem, and maybe she should stop striving so hard for that. There is one happy couple in the building--a gay porter and doorman. But they are closeted at work as it's a very conservative building. As Pepper slowly comes to discover what it is she wants in life, and how to claim her happiness, relationships around her shift and change.

I went into this book expecting something light and fluffy, but instead it got fairly dark at times, as life can do, and yet it was ultimately a hopeful novel. It's almost as if, by removing the gilt and showing the grit underneath, we're exposed to something ultimately more beautiful, more real. I know this is a bold thing to say, but this book felt a bit like what Edith Wharton might be writing today (had she ever done multiple-narration.) Mr. Vatner is simultaneously sympathetic to and skewering of the upper classes in a way that makes them feel much more relatable. And this book has kept me thinking, weeks afterward.

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