This is one of those books where I had an instant connection to the protagonist/narrator, Alice Pearse. First, she’s a book lover, and much of this novel is dedicated to the magic and importance of books. Second, Alice is struggling to balance work and family. Yes, that topic might feel like a cliché by now, but the reality of it still looms large over every working mother. Alice’s struggles are universal. Her husband, Nicholas, loses his job at a high-powered New York law firm, so Alice is forced to seek out full-time employment. She finds her dream job, working for a company called Scroll that is going to open up a chain of bookstores that only sell electronic books. Their mission is to “reinvent reading,” and once the novelty of the idea wears off, Alice’s dream job becomes something very different. In the meantime, her father’s cancer has reappeared, her nanny has found another job, and her husband has started drinking heavily. It’s the working mother’s perfect storm.
The plot might not be completely original, but Egan’s treatment of it makes the book shine. She’s a master at juxtaposing the heartbreaking and the absurd. Alice’s mercurial boss asks her to avoid using exclamation points in her emails, while her father’s health slowly declines and her family becomes increasingly impatient with her long absences from home. Alice’s voice is fresh, funny, and real. She’s one of those characters you could imagine yourself having lunch with, and parts of her story got me pretty choked up. Working mother or not, anyone who’s ever had to keep it together while their world unravels will see themselves in this book.