This is the second novel, after the excellent Hold Still, from a young writer who lives and teaches writing in New York. The protagonist, Elizabeth, is also a young writer, as well as a high-school teacher and grad student, living in the boroughs. Steger Strong knows contemporary New York as well as anybody writing fiction today, and getting one’s fix without a scary flight in a pandemic is worth the price of admission. But the sights you’ll see won’t be those you’d pick on vacation.
Elizabeth is a mother with two very young girls, three or four teaching jobs, and a husband who gave up working for the big bucks after Lehman Brothers imploded and the markets crashed. He now installs cabinets and other renovations for people with homes like he (and his family) will never live in after making that life-changing career choice. But it was a decision they both supported, and they love each other and their kids, all of which is a good thing because they have landed in bankruptcy court, buried in debt as the book opens.
As Elizabeth learns to live without money or credit cards, she looks back on her relationship with Sasha. They had been great friends in their early-twenties, lounging around the boroughs’ bars, Sasha entertaining the men she attracted while Elizabeth read novels stashed in her purse. Elizabeth sees Sasha in such attractive terms, I wondered if there had been more to their relationship, or would be.
After the bankruptcy, Elizabeth’s parents invite her to bring the babies to Long Island for a stay while her husband does a job and school is out. “I don’t want to say yes and know that it won’t go well,” she tells us as she mulls it over.
"My parents came from nothing and worked hard for their money, which also meant they thought anyone who was not also successful was not successful because they did not work hard enough. They loved us, tracked every grade and track meet . . . . Food was good but not-thin was disgusting. Flaws were fine but not ever when others might see."
* * *
"I was depressed is a clear, clean thing that I can say that might explain things. That my dad probably was too was not ever discussed. My whole life, I’d watched as he got sad and quiet and my mom yelled at him and he left the room and did not talk again for days. . . . [I would] beg him later—when she yelled again and he walked out of the house, standing in the backyard, locking himself in the garage, pulling the car over so he could get out and walk along the highway—not to leave."
* * *
"We spend a week not really talking."
Elizabeth lives her life with all this negative patrimony, and with the weight of the choices she and her husband have made bearing down on them.
For the most part, Elizabeth lives her professional life far better than her private one. Her work with high school students from poor backgrounds is rendered in quiet tones and occasional glimpses of a teacher worth her salt. She cares far more for her students, and her own babies, than herself. But she has great difficulty concentrating on her work with high schoolers, with the weight of her family’s circumstances bearing down on her. She buys books she can’t afford, and ducks out on her duties when the students don’t need her and nobody will notice.
The novel is full of spot-on descriptions, not only of what it feels like to be this Elizabeth, but what it feels like to be her parents, and Sasha, and others around her. The narrative arc is a little thin, but the point the novel makes is there at the end. In the main, this is a story of how hard it can be for one generation to follow another into a life that is anything like comparable financially. Elizabeth’s parents are part of a post-war generation that encountered a world of opportunity; their adult children can face a very different world indeed. All of them overlook all this at their peril.