Monday, December 23, 2019

Book Review: Split-Level

By Sara Steven

In Split-Level, set as the nation recoils from Nixon, Alex Pearl is about to commit the first major transgression of her life. But why shouldn’t she remain an officially contented, soon-to-turn-thirty wife? She’s got a lovely home in an upscale Jersey suburb, two precocious daughters, and a charming husband, Donny. But Alex can no longer deny she craves more—some infusion of passion into the cul-de-sac world she inhabits.

After she receives a phone call from her babysitter’s mother reporting that Donny took the teen for a midnight ride, promising he’d teach her how to drive, Alex insists they attend Marriage Mountain, the quintessential 1970s “healing couples sanctuary.” Donny accedes—but soon becomes obsessed with the manifesto A Different Proposition and its vision of how multiple couples can live together in spouse-swapping bliss. At first Alex scoffs, but soon she gives Donny much more than he bargained for. After he targets the perfect couple to collude in his fantasy, Alex discovers her desire for love escalating to new heights—along with a willingness to risk everything. Split-Level evokes a pivotal moment in the story of American matrimony, a time when it seemed as if an open marriage might open hearts as well. (Synopsis courtesy of Goodreads)

The vantage point within Split-Level gave me a quiet cinemagraphic experience, contributing to the nostalgia of the 70’s. I felt transported to a time when it was expected that a woman take care of her family, the home. That outside interests were merely hobbies, and she was more defined by the image she portrayed than the individual she could become. Alex is full of contrasting emotions and feelings on practically everything, fighting within herself to do what’s socially correct, but yearning to break out of the confines of her life.

The Donny/Alex dynamic made it clear as to why they go to Marriage Mountain. While it’s partly due to Donny’s midnight ride with the teen babysitter, there are deeper issues that have been there beneath the surface, and many are brought to light over the course of reading Split-Level. The scenes showcasing spouse-swapping, they felt gritty and raw, uncomfortable and awkward, yet there are seeds of potential hope and even a lifeline, where Alex’s happiness is concerned. As the reader, I wondered constantly on whether what this couple chooses to do is a good thing, or not. Where those morality lines lie, and if it even matters. I wanted so much for there to be some happy ending for Alex, that she could find happiness outside of what she’s been told is the only way to obtain it.

While this story is about a married couple who makes the decision to do something that isn’t conventional, it’s primarily about a woman who goes through a life-altering experience, one that, in the end, has her re-evaluating what’s important, and how she wants to proceed going forward. This involves her family, the other couple, the men in her life, and making the decision on doing what’s best for everyone else, or what’s ultimately best for her. This takes place in the 70’s, but there are a lot of subtleties that can apply to our society in the present, too, making it relevant to and even at times, relatable.

Thanks to She Writes Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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