The synopsis of Split-Level by Sande Boritz Berger promised some suspenseful drama and raised a lot of curiosity for me as a reader. The story is easy to get into and despite it being a quick read with a somewhat fantastical twist, it has stayed with me.
The main character, Alex Pearl, is a quirky (lots of similes and metaphors!) young woman with two children who is married to a guy she met when they were both working as counselors at a summer camp for kids. From the start, Alex seems a bit lost in her role as a housewife. She does the job and loves her children immensely, but keeping up with home decor fashions and even her own personal style doesn’t seem as compelling to her as following her creative instincts and looking for some larger meaning or purpose in her life. The novel is set in the 1970s (a time period that is depicted well), precisely the time when women were beginning to be able to look beyond the home for occupation and independence. I was struck by how confining Alex’s life seemed to be. Her own perception of this becomes clearer and more pressing as the story progresses.
The characters in the book are drawn well, but I didn’t feel as though I got to know them too deeply. Perhaps this was because the story is told through the eyes of Alex, and she leans toward self-interest and the comparison of herself to those around her rather than analyzing others to understand what makes them tick. Her assessments are often superficial, but given her youth, this seems appropriate. There is still so much to learn at that age. The lack of strong bonds in her marriage, apparent from the first pages of the story, are likely related to her underpowered powers of perception as well as being a byproduct of marrying young and not recognizing that being drawn to a person and winning his affection isn’t automatically enough to make a marriage strong.
There were laugh-out-loud moments in the book, and the story kept me entertained even though it was quite serious at times. The minor character Rona was particularly fun. The depictions of the parent-adult child relationships were so well done that they seemed at times like secret decoders for the behavior of the young Pearl couple.
I came away from Split-Level with an appreciation for what my mother’s life might have been like when I was small and she was at home raising us while my dad worked. The challenges of balancing family, work, and self still remain for women who choose to have children even though these challenges have taken on a form that differs somewhat from that of Alex Pearl’s late 20s. The destructive pressure to “have it all” and the disparities in the social acceptance of male and female sexuality haven’t yet fizzled out from their decades-ago heydays.
Alex grows up quite a bit during the course of the story, even though it takes place over just a few years of her life. Her self-esteem improves as well, which somehow seems to nurture maturity in other areas of her life in which it was lacking. I enjoyed that part of the book the most, and her struggle to find meaning was authentic. I liked her at the end of the book a lot more than I did at the beginning.
I’m grateful to She Writes Press for providing an advance reader copy of Split-Level via NetGalley.