Split-Level (She Writes Press May 7, 2019), by acclaimed author Sande Boritz Berger, is a bold, beautiful, shimmery novel, full of longing, wit, and insight, at once both sad and hopeful, ultimately uplifting, sometimes funny, and always entertaining. Written with care and obvious talent, Split-Level is the story of a marriage on the ropes and a woman struggling to dig her way out of a staid, suburban life and reclaim her talents and her identity.
Set in the 1970’s, in the wake of Watergate, the novel neither depends upon the Seventies for its power, nor does it glorify or condemn that era. But it does capture the feel of the times. Soft-rock group Bread’s “I Want to Make It With You” is the sound-track. An affluent neighborhood in New Jersey is the site. And Alex Pearl, short for Alexandra, is the flawed, but wholly charming heroine, as she tells her story in first person.
Alex, an attractive young mother, pushing thirty, is vaguely discontent at the novel’s beginning despite her upwardly mobile lifestyle, her husband with a good job, the split-level home, and two precious daughters that she completely adores (and for good reason!). But Alex, a talented artist who longs to return to painting true art, has been reduced to hand-painting T-shirts for children and standing in long lines at the butcher’s. Her yearning for something more is palpable and oh, so deftly handled by the author. Alex is ripe for something to happen. And it does.
Her husband, Donny, has some frustrations and disappointments of his own. His talent for music is even more unused than Alex’s—at least she paints T-shirts—but he works in his father’s bra manufacturing business and can never quite please his father. Donny is immature and often shows poor judgment, but he seems to truly love Alex and his daughters. But is that love enough? For either him, or for Alex?
While in Florida visiting Alex’s parents, Donny and Alex meet another couple from the same neighborhood in New Jersey. Alex and the other woman’s husband have a spark. Donny and the other man’s wife have a spark. The two couples meet up again back in their own New Jersey neighborhood. What happens next feels inevitable. The swinging seventies were, after all, a time of couples’ retreats and wife-swapping. However inevitable it might seem, the author (using Alex’s own voice nearly perfectly) conveys the developing spouse-swapping story with a slow-burning, acute sensitivity which creates tension, understanding, and sympathy.
What naturally flows from there is a crooked love story. There are moments of grave tension—when the other couple’s wayward son disappears at a rest stop on a long drive for example. Yet the surprising power of friendship between the women as they care for their children is well done and adds a layer of richness to the story line. The children come close to stealing a few scenes as they are beautifully drawn by the author’s words and observations. While Alex and Donny have raised well-behaved, sensitive children, the other couple raised hellions, which creates another layer of conflict in the story. The camping trip the two couples and four children take together is a turning point, and the children are one of the reasons for that.
What makes this story so strong in terms of the plot is not all just the well-done, complicated what-happens-next aspects, but what happens emotionally within Alex. For once in her life, Alex does something bad—or at least a transgression in the eyes of others. Yet she is strengthened by her relationship with the other man and emboldened by her own rebellion. And as she grows, she confronts her discontent. Out of the resulting chaos and dishevelment that naturally develops from the transgression, Alex buy paints and supplies and actually paints a work of art. Her first piece of real art since before her marriage, and she is proud of breaking free of just the T-shirt artwork. What becomes of this painting is a significant and telling moment in the story—which you should read for yourself because this reviewer will not give that away.
Another thing that makes this book so strong is the sheer wonder and beauty of the writing itself. This is a book that should be read slow and savored. Sande Boritz Berger proved just how great a writer she is in her debut novel, The Sweetness (She Writes Press 2014), of which Booklist wrote: “[A] stirring debut novel of Holocaust survivor guilt–guilt about being safe. Told with candor and tenderness …”
With Split-Level, Berger offers readers another chance to savor her talents, wit, and insights. And, if you doubt for one moment that Split-Level is a great book worthy of your time to read, let the words of Joyce Carol Oats, surely one of the most talented and acclaimed writers of our time, convince you. Of Split-Level, Oats wrote: “How impressive Split-Level is: wonderfully rich with details, fluent and fluid, with an inevitable-yet-unexpected ending, inspired throughout is its portrait of a woman whose essential life is an unconscious double-ness/split-ness.”―Joyce Carol Oates, author of We Were the Mulvaneys and Blonde