Thursday, May 28, 2015

Upper West Side Story by Susan Pashman : A Review

Book Title: Upper West Side Story by Susan Pashman
Category:  Adult fiction, 264 pages
Genre: Literary fiction
Publisher: Harvard Square Editions
Release date: May 2015

          Meet Bettina Grosjean, a professor of Women’s History, and her husband, a high-ranking environmental policymaker in the New York City mayor’s office. Once a pair of student radicals, they are now raising their two brainy children on New York’s Upper West Side.
          Here is the tale of their fierce parental love as it is tested in a startling eruption of racial hostility and political chicanery within the very community they have long loved and helped to build. Despite the deep love and affection they have for each other, their domestic life is suddenly thrown into crisis by a shocking and tragic event: During a school field trip, their son Max and his best friend, Cyrus, are horsing around when, in a freak accident, Cyrus falls down a flight of stairs, and dies a few days later.

          The fact that Cyrus is black, that his mother is Bettina’s closest friend–that jealousy, suspicion and resentment have long been simmering in the community, and that there are powerful political forces at work as well–all conspire to reveal an ugly underbelly of the community the Grosjeans have worked so hard to fashion into a model of an enlightened, multiracial world.
          Upper West Side Story is also the story of a remarkable multi-racial friendship, of two women united by their ideals and their devotion to their children, then divided by events that spiral out of control.

          With cries for racial justice rising up all around our country, we must stop and consider how recent headlines are impacting our children, kids raised to believe in an America that is different from the one now showing its face.
          Upper West Side Story – a book that will change your perspective on a lot of things, including the things that you believed would remain just as same as they always are. The author paints a very different canvas with multiple layers and subtle colors with each line interwoven to form one huge story that has more than a few valuable lessons. The summary would, by itself, give the reader an idea of how the book is going to evolve. But the real picture is a much more brilliant, unexpected story.
          Bettina Grosjean is an academic married to Stephen, who is a policy maker in the New York City Mayor’s office. Stephen sees politics and the serious power play of people with vested interests in every aspect of his life. Bettina, on the other hand, (of course with her high academician ideals) refuses to believe that everything is not what it seems. She has devoted herself to pursue with zeal the causes she believes in, not quite waking up to reality. Stephen, on the other hand has become a hardcore cynic who distrusts everything that surrounds him. Ideals clashing, the couple realise that their marriage is slowly falling apart.
          All of a sudden, a freak accident turns their life upside down. A long standing friendship is tested, already strained relationships are pushed to their extreme, a whole life becomes meaningless. But a small ray of hope and belief holds tight. An accident becomes ground for political racism and innocent people are made scapegoats while people who least expected it are made targets. A mother’s love for her lost son and a mother’s love for a son who is getting targeted in a racial war are portrayed beautifully.
          The book is full of powerful dialogues and scene placement. Written alternatively in first person narratives and journal entries, each perspective (that of the adult woman and the adolescent boy) offers something to think about, take back and chew over. The opening part of the book is true in every word and made an impression on the mind of the reader who would by then clearly understand what the book would be like.
          The journal entry is moving and brilliant, worded perfectly. Special mention: the part where Max insults the other kids with spelling bee words – a mild humour and an adolescent smugness that is evident in those words of a child struggling to find a balance. The book is filled with powerful dialogs.
          “Would this terrible turn of events turn asunder all we'd so lovingly put together” – in description of the fear of the unknown, the uncertainty of it all.
         “Those horned and hairy monsters we read about with our children really do exist, and when they appear in our lives, they do so by springing suddenly up from their pitch-black hell and tearing the entire world apart in an eye blink. There is nothing normal about them.” – and there we have the right wording to describe the inner monster everyone faces.
          “Down every street, behind every window, lives were being ruined—choked by greed, poisoned by ambition, obliterated by self-interest.” – a unique way of describing the politics and petty squabbles of the human minds.
          The book started as a story about the underlying racism despite the best efforts of people, but by the time we read the last chapter and Nell’s words, we realise that it really was much more than that. Cliched though it may sound, the book is all about love, loss, legal tangle and how forgiveness is a necessity not only for those who have sinned, but also those who have been victimised. Powerful messages masquerade as dialogs and the book needs to be treasured.

RATING: 4.8/5

          Susan Pashman is a philosophy professor and former attorney. While in law school, she served a year in the New York City Council President’s office; some of what she learned there has found its way into this story. But most of this book derives from her experience of raising two boys on her own in Brooklyn. Many of her sons’ childhood exploits, and the hopes and fears she had for them, became the heart of this novel.
She now resides in Sag Harbor, New York, with her husband, Jack Weinstein.
PRICE: $6.06 for Kindle, $22.95 for paperback.

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