Once in a while, back when “Friends” was still on TV, I would sneakily entertain a guilty and subversive thought: Why can’t reading be this much fun? Lots of the time it is, of course, and when it’s not pure fun, it has other advantages: it’s multi-textured, thought-provoking, enlightening, in a way that “Friends” admittedly was not.
Prospect Park West by Amy Sohn is kind of what “Friends” might be like if it were a novel and if all the female characters were new moms. In a way, it offers the best of two mediums (media?): the color and three-dimensionality of TV with the depth and insight of fiction. And although neither aspect rates an A+, it’s still a lot of fun to read, and a large order of magnitude better than most novels that try to offer a slice of contemporary life in a very specific milieu.
In this case, the milieu is the Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Prospect Park West alternates between the viewpoints of four main characters, with short segments representing bit players thrown in once in a while for good measure. Rebecca, the protagonist to whom the narrative is most heavily weighted (but only by a little bit), is a freelance magazine writer whose marriage has notably taken a turn for the worse since her one-and-a-half year old daughter was born, though for a reason I think some women would envy: Rebecca’s husband Theo is too enraptured by fatherhood to pay as much attention to his wife as he does to his daughter. Since Rebecca likes attention, this is a big problem, but not surprisingly, she eventually finds attention both in terms of another man and a new BFF, Lizzie, who is another of the four narrators. Lizzie also has a toddler and, like Rebecca, spends a lot of time at Park Slope coffee shops, kiddie singalongs and playgrounds; also like Rebecca, she’s a little discombobulated, though for different reasons. Narrator #3 is Karen Bryan Shapiro, a prototype of SAHM neurosis who puts kneepads on her son at the playground, washes his hands constantly with Purell, bases every move she makes on advice she found in the latest book on parenting or marriage, and bids way too high on a condo so that her son can go to a public school with fewer minorities than that in the school district in which they have been living. Karen has a crush on a celebrity who lives in Park Slope, superstar Melora Leigh, whose filmography Karen knows as well as she knows her son’s nap schedule. But Melora’s inner life is a lot different from the account Karen reads in People magazine, and we readers know this because Melora is the fourth narrator.
Many of the details of these women’s lives will be familiar to women who live in up-and-coming parts of various cities: the competition for the best condo in the right public school district; the list-serves by which they keep track of their parenting peers; the impenetrable playground cliques (of moms, not kids); the food co-op shifts. As one summer progresses in their lives, the characters connect with each other or pass in the night, make friends with each other or have reasons to avoid each other, and it’s fun for the reader to keep track of the degrees of separation between each of the women.
As I said at the beginning, it’s a little like watching TV, but any mother can relate to the anxieties, the boredom, and the need for friends that these women routinely experience as they configure their lives around their children and question their own decisions. Each character is distinct and never does Sohn cave in to stereotype, although one plot twist is ridiculous and a few others are questionable in an otherwise plausible narrative. The ending deserves respect as well. Maybe beach read is a good term for this novel. You wouldn’t want it to be the only thing you read this summer, but it’s a lot of fun.
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