LOC (Laugh or Cry) – What we’ve lost in a world of acronyms (New Jersey, present-day):“I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry,” concedes Alice Pearse, our witty, overwhelmed, and heavyhearted 38-year-old, booklover commentator. You’re likely to react likewise to Elisabeth Egan’s observant debut.
For along with the humor and running satire of an ultra-high tech world reduced to catchy and unpronounceable abbreviations (technically acronyms vs. initialisms), A Window Opens is an incisive, cautionary tale about squandering what matters most in life and work and the dicey balancing act between the two.
I’d love to send Anne Weisberg, senior VP at the Families and Work Institute, Egan’s new book to see if she’d be laughing or crying. Her argument for “how trapped we still are in a work culture that still prizes total availability at the office at all times” couldn’t be more timely and fitting to Egan’s contemporary plot.
Set in Filament, an imaginary New Jersey suburb beautifully situated near important things in Alice’s life: the elementary school her three endearing children attend; her parents; her best friend’s independent bookstore; and the train station to Manhattan, where Alice has been happily working PT as a books editor for a fictitious magazine, You.
“Book people stick together,” Alice declares, a rally cry from a character who surely mimics the author’s stance as the books editor for Glamour magazine. (Egan’s book reviews have also appeared in other magazines, national newspapers, online publications.) Egan even did a stint at Amazon, which plays mightily into the storyline when from out-of-the-blue Alice’s financial status drastically spirals downward, driving her to seek FT employment. Alice could be your real chin-up, harried friend, so the whole time you’re reading you’re wishing you could warn her about the job she’s too-hastily accepted at an Amazon-like company with a laser mission to “reinvent reading like Starbucks reinvented coffee.” Hmmm.
Alice’s delights, worries, frustrations, and anguish will resonate. You don’t have to be a mother – stay-at-home, PT, or FT – to commiserate with Alice’s tug-of-war for precious time. Nor be married to a reticent husband like Alice’s, Nicholas, a corporate lawyer who loses his cool when he learns he’s not partner material, quits, and then unilaterally decides to start-out on his own, to relate to Alice’s unexpected stressors, which impact her and her family and threaten a cherished friendship. You also don’t have to live near/in the Big Apple, “the literary universe of the world,” or have parents woven into the daily fabric of your life.
All you need is a passion for books and Indie bookstores. Add to that having someone very close to you whose endured cancer like Alice’s father; throat cancer robbed him of his physical voice (he’s an avid emailer). Perhaps you’re addicted to/feel compelled to have an active presence on social media. Or, simply, have way too much on your plate. In my book, that covers just about everyone. Which means A Window Opens will touch a chord.
When we first meet Alice, she and her kids ages 11, 8, 5 – Margot, Oliver, and Georgie – are walking home from school as a “chain of seven happy people holding hands.” Their 25-year-old, “cool rocker” babysitter Jessie has been “unflappable” for the past seven years. She’s the “opposite of Mary Poppins,” but she’s more than a life-saver. She’s family. And yes, she rises to the occasion as Alice’s new career takes its toll.
Even if you’re not on Twitter, you can imagine how exciting it might have felt when literary-job hunting Alice is discovered in that virtual universe by an employee of a company digitally named Scroll, with offices in Manhattan, promising to “create an unforgettable reading experience for its customers.”
The opportune word is customers. Because all Scroll cares about is the bottom line – not SSR (sustained silent reading), a “literary salon” experience pitched to Alice. Everything about their brutal marketplace mentality (the parent company is a retail behemoth headquartered in Cleveland where their galleria owned malls saved jobs) screams beware!
Alice, though, is an optimistic soul, so when she/“employee #305” enters her minimalist, impersonal white workplace she translates “stark” into “elegant.” Keep in mind she’s also an independent soul (she kept her maiden name) who is determined to succeed. Fear of failure, a potent yet misguided motivator.
That’s why it takes her a painfully long time to come to grips with the fact that the job she signed onto is not the one she’s getting. So she admirably (?) cheers herself on to getting accustomed to Scroll’s confounding codes and crazy, clinical work ethic: “OOTO (out of the office), WFH (work from home), DA (doctor’s appointment), BL (business lunch), VIM (very important meeting), EOD (end of day),” and plenty more like the one Alice eventually concocts: WTFAIDH. (The reader can translate that one!)
Alice’s FT working-Mom existence while her husband is silently struggling to make a go of it and her father’s health is precarious unfolds as a poignant tale of “expectations recalibrated.” Her children are “exhausted and bedraggled,” but so is she. (Oliver is a heartbreaker, faithfully racing to the train station to greet his mother. So is the time Alice realizes Georgie can read and she didn’t even know it.) She’s aware of Nicholas’ descent into problematic drinking, but there never seems to be the right time to deal head on with this “elephant” in the room. She heroically tries not to let go of still always being there for her stoical parents, but the oppressive job is 24/7 so sadly she’s not.
You may yearn for an Alice who is more assertive, more available, more decisive. The strength of those feelings says a lot about Egan’s realistic portrayal of a traumatic year in the life of someone struggling to stay afloat as best she can. Inside, though, Alice admits she’s the “Grand Canyon of heartbreak contained.”
Which is to say you probably know someone like Alice, trying so hard to balance it all. Egan’s message is sometimes the intrinsic costs are not worth it, and the sooner we wake up to that reality the better. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the problem is me. In Alice’s case, she’s older than her counterparts and the only Mom, so her mindset is: persevere, check more emails, adapt to this newfangled way of thinking and communicating.
Is it easier to live in denial? Ironically, the drama that shakes that viewpoint the loudest involves Alice’s forced-to-retire, voiceless father. His steadfast, caring emails and signature ending – LOL (Lots of Love) – remind us of all the good technology brings, including how it can level the playing field for people with disabilities. He’s Oliver’s “most inspiring person,” another reason to cheer this sweet boy. His sensitivity to his grandfather’s off-putting mechanical voice box, “Buzz Lightyear,” is more empathetic than some adults might be.
Chapters cycle through the four seasons, summoning the eternal cycles of life. For Alice and the rest of us, life goes on. Some years fare happier than others. Hopefully, in all years we absorb something meaningful to improve upon. So we can contentedly answer Alice’s question: “Are you the person you want to be?”