One of the most anticipated novels of the summer delves with humor and empathy into an everywoman’s heroic attempt to have it all. It’s no surprise that Alice Pearse, the harried woman at the center of A Window Opens (Simon & Schuster, August 25), confesses to her mother: “I’m so stressed, I feel like my head is going to explode.”
This relatable, warm and funny debut from Glamour magazine books editor Elisabeth Egan gets at the heart of what it means to be everything to everybody. Like many of today’s brightly optimistic women, Alice follows Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to lean in only to discover that when she leans too far she begins to topple over.
A Window Opens fits neatly in the women’s fiction category, but its message is as much a social commentary on the challenges of living in our tech-saturated world as it is a story about balancing family and work.
As this intimately told novel opens, the 30-something Alice has what she considers a perfect life. She loves her husband Nicholas, adores her three young children and is deeply satisfied with her part-time job as the books editor for You magazine. Drawing on her experience as Glamour’s literary tastemaker, Egan also uses Alice’s story to underline the value of reading and the inestimable importance of books in our lives. Alice’s sentimental love of books will impact the choices she’s asked to make in this story.
Alice’s life slips off its comfortable track when Nicholas doesn’t make partner at his law firm. In a pique of anger he throws a laptop across a conference room – an act that guarantees his departure from the firm — then sets out to establish his own practice. With their financial situation looking dire, at least for a while, Alice looks for a full-time job. She snags one at the high-tech startup Scroll, which is hiring “forward thinking booklovers to help create an unforgettable reading experience” for its customers. Scroll plans to open a chain of “reading lounges” designed “to reinvent the bookstore experience.”
This sounds perfect for Alice who’s hired as “Content Manager-slash-Industry Liaison,” tasked with getting publishers on board with Scroll’s business philosophy. Customers will be offered “SSR” (sustained silent reading) as well as earth-friendly baked goods, foot massages, gummy bears and the opportunity to buy e-books and “carbon-based” first editions of world classics.
With tongue in cheek, Egan writes of Alice’s struggles to keep up with her tech-savvier younger coworkers, the office’s “hip vibe,” the fashion demands of dressing properly on Wacky Wednesday and figuring out how to use the biometric time clock. All the while, her family life unravels like the worn-out tights she wears to work. Who has time to shop for new ones, she asks? Or new toothbrushes? Even when her family of five resorts to sharing three.
Alice’s mad dash of a life is complicated by the challenges she faces in relatable subplots. Her father is dying from throat cancer and she despises herself for checking work email while sitting by his bedside. Her best friend’s indie bookstore could be put out of business if Scroll’s reading lounges are successful, and her husband is passing out drunk in the basement where he’s hiding liquor bottles behind the elliptical machine.
Readers will love A Window Opens because Egan “gets it.” We’ve all, at one time or another, felt as Alice does when her carefully constructed life begins collapsing like an off-kilter Jenga tower. Through credible characters, realistic dialogue, heartfelt descriptions of the demands of being a mother, wife, daughter, coworker and friend Egan tackles with authenticity and nuance the challenges of being a woman in today’s busy world.
It seems, at least in the middle of this novel, that it’s taking Alice too long to challenge Scroll’s evolving business scheme and admit the toll her new life is having on her family. But the gentle and disarming Alice finds her voice after Scroll decides to “pivot” away from its original mission and she’s forced to make tough choices. In a heart-stopping scene near the book’s end, a metaphorical window opens and Alice clearly sees what matters most.
If there’s a message Egan’s Alice is IM-ing to us it’s this: Do what you really want. Think of life like a well-planned trip to the grocery store, Alice writes in an email to a friend. “Figure out what you feel like eating and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.” A Window Opens is just as scrumptious.