The Short Version: An oddball collection of tenants in an old Brooklyn apartment building must come to terms with their elderly landlady’s sudden slide into dementia – and her son’s greedy plan to evict them. But, for Edward and Paulie and Thomas and Adeleine, there might not be anywhere else for them to go.
The Review: Have you ever lived somewhere crowded? Whether it’s an apartment building or a street in a suburban development, there’s an unmistakable knowledge that comes from living near other people – the knowledge of those other people. Maybe you’re lucky enough to live in a building like the one lovingly described by Kathleen Alcott in Infinite Home (a growing rarity in New York, to say the least), where you know the other tenants by name and maybe you’re even friends with them. Maybe you just know that there’s an old couple in the house down the street, a bunch of stoners in the one across from you, and if a family buys the house next door, you’re hoping their kids will be at least teenagers. But no matter what, one thing is true: you are yourself in relation to these people and their existence in your orbit affects you, even on the most basic level.
Kathleen Alcott spends the first half of her novel making the reader the invisible extra tenant in this Brooklyn apartment building (three stories, five apartments; sounds about right) and you come to know the characters – the people – who live there as though they were, in fact, your neighbors. And what a wonderful way she has with breathing life into them, making them both completely ordinary and also individuals like people out of a Wes Anderson film. There’s Thomas, the young painter who suffered from a stroke, and Adeleine, the young agoraphobe who is building herself a museum in her room, and Edward, the washed-up stand-up comic, and Paulie, a thirtysomething man who suffers from Williams Syndrome (a neurological disorder that makes him an excitable & energetic personality but one who suffers from quantitative & maturative impairments) – but all four of them (all six main characters, if we include Paulie’s sister Claudia and the landlady Edith) move beyond their obvious character sketches with speed. Edward and Paulie are oddball best friends of a sort, and the development of Thomas and Adeleine’s friendship is far more than a romantic comedy waiting to happen.
Alcott takes this care with the emotional lives of these characters as much as she does with the storytelling, too. Adeleine’s agoraphobia and Paulie’s illness, specifically, both are handled with real class – neither used as a storytelling crutch, but also not discussed with kid gloves. And the humanity that they all show one another, especially Edith… there is, in a sense, a hopefulness here: a hope that we can actually be good to one another.
The second half of the book gives over to a somewhat stronger plot engine: the son’s desire for the building and the tenants’ desire to not lose it. As they splinter off from the house, headed in different directions for different reasons, the cohesive gel that held the novel together in the early going threatens to pull apart but never quite does, perhaps largely due to Alcott’s short and propulsive chapters. The story never stays with one character for too long but makes sure that we’re never too long away from anyone and, in turn, that the story never stops pushing forward. If the faint thread of hope that sends Thomas, in particular, on his quest to save the building seems a little tenuous at times, that’s largely because it is – but it also feels like the sort of coincidence that readers (myself included) are too quick to brush off because they seem too “unrealistic”, which is to say that they’re the sorts of things that would absolutely happen in life but their happening slightly neater here makes them seem more far-fetched. Thomas’ quest could easily have gone the other way and it wouldn’t have been surprising, but we hope that he will succeed because we have come, by that point in the novel, to care too much about these people to see something bad happen to them.
And bad things do happen, as they do to any family. There is an uncomfortable short sequence of scenes between Adeleine and the increasingly slimey Owen that culminates in a moment that might, to a non-New Yorker, seem far-fetched in its psychological brutality… but that is actually not too far off of what unscrupulous landlords have been known to do, in New York and elsewhere. There are far too many stories – of old people being swindled out of their homes, of tenants being subjected to abuse both verbal and psychological, of slumlords in the truest sense of the term – for me to think that this is anything other than a possible power play. Hell, it might’ve already happened to someone. I hope not – and I hate that this city, a city that’s meant to be accessible to everyone, has become nearly unlivable for the very people that make it a city worth living in. This novel takes place in Brooklyn, I’m thinking possibly in the Clinton Hill area – an area nearly unaffordable for young people or those with limited (for whatever reason) incomes. It’s only through the generosity of a landlord like Edith, whose dementia had little to do with the fact that she (and her late husband, who looms like a happy ghost throughout) enjoyed cultivating a sort of family in her building, that some are lucky enough to find a way to make it work.
But the thing is – and it’s the thing that made me sit down at my subway stop on the way home just to finish the book, because I couldn’t bear to pause even for the four block walk to my apartment – families aren’t as immutable as we think they are. We know that our blood families can change over time, through the cycle of birth and death, but what about the families we create or that we find ourselves a part of? It’s not dissimilar to the questions China Miéville ponders in The Scar or the ones Julia Pierpont examines in Among the Ten Thousand Things: what makes a family? What keeps it together? And the ultimate note of hope in this novel is that, even when one family falls apart, you might not even realize that another is already forming around you.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Alcott’s characters are beautifully drawn and their plight, so simple and ordinary and yet given urgency for those very reasons, makes it easy to become an honorary member of this apartment building’s “family.” The novel takes a few minutes to find its footing (the opening page-long prologue is not a great introduction) but almost before you know it, you are drawn into the quiet near-melancholy of this fading moment and propelled along to the equally quiet near-joy of the next moment’s birth. A beautiful novel (with, by the way, a BEAUTIFUL jacket; the pictures don’t do the colors justice) and a heartfelt depiction of the homes we create for ourselves – and the lengths that we will go to protect them, no matter what shape they take.