The weird world of Park Slope parents
Amy Sohn’s Prospect Park West captures perfectly the bourgeois-bohemian residents and overwrought moms of Park Slope in Brooklyn, but in the end its sharp, glinting satire might leave the reader cold.
It is an odd feeling to be in the same place – exactly the same place – where a novel unfolds. I have experienced it twice before, once while reading Spy in the House of Love, when I realised I was sitting in the same café where Sabina waits in the story, and another time in the 1980s when I discovered I could look out my window and see into the apartment from Bright Lights, Big City. Amy Sohn’s new novel, Prospect Park West, has that same sense of place and startling familiarity… only much more so.
The novel takes place where I live, in ‘brownstone’ Brooklyn, specifically in Park Slope. It’s a place known for its bourgeois-bohemian residents, its soaring property values, and – most of all – for its parents and kids. Not just any parents and kids, mind you; Park Slope is synonymous with parenting excess: $700 strollers, ‘mommy and me’ pilates classes, and the drone of moms and dads hovering over their offspring in playgrounds and schoolyards.
Sohn’s Park Slope is geographically correct and meticulous in its detail. Sometimes names are changed, but more often they are not. Restaurants and bars like the Tea Lounge (aka the Teat Lounge because of all the public breastfeeding), the Gate pub, the Applewood and Al Di La restaurants all make an appearance. Characters peruse the Park Slope Parents listserv and shop at neighbourhood institutions like the Food Co-op and ‘Back to the Land’. Sohn has woven local events – legends, really – into the plot, like the infamous ‘swingers’ post on the Park Slope Parents list or the rash of thefts at the Co-op.
She also includes the local celebrities. Some are fictional, like Melora Leigh and Stuart Ashby – loosely based on former local residents Jennifer Connelly and her husband Paul Bettany, but with a heavy helping of Brangelina. Some like Kate Hudson, Viggo Mortensen and Lucy Lui just ‘play themselves’. The four women in the story are also Park Slope types – so recognisable you might pick them out in the playground.
Freelance writer Rebecca Rose is bored and bitter about the way motherhood has transformed her relationship with her husband, Theo. When she’s not stealing the batteries from her daughter’s crib mobile to power her sex toys, she’s reflexively sneering at the other local parents as much for their dress sense as for their ‘expressions of joyless focus as if they were doing open-heart surgery or defusing bombs’.
Karen Bryan Shapiro is one of the ubiquitous dumpy ‘stroller moms’ patrolling the neighbourhood. Gasping and status-conscious she doles out veggie booty snacks to quiet her son, Darby, while alternately stalking real estate in the PS321 school zone or hanging out near a parkside mansion hoping to catch a glimpse of local actress Melora Leigh.
Lizzie O’Donnell is a young ‘hasbian’ mom married to Jay, a second-generation Haitian jazz musician. His hectic tour schedule leaves Lizzie on her own with their son, Mance, making her a de facto single parent. Though she’s overwhelmed, Lizzie rejects her mother-in-law Mona’s offers of help because she feels judged for her ‘attachment parenting’ lifestyle. She and Rebecca become friendly on the basis of their shared disdain for other Park Slope moms.
Melora Leigh is the tall, blonde, Oscar-winning occupant of the mansion on Prospect Park West where she lives an idyllic life with her handsome husband, actor Stuart Ashby, and their adopted Vietnamese son, Orion. In reality, however, her career is in a slump and she is paranoid, insecure and heavily medicated. She’s also a kleptomaniac. Motherhood, like membership of the Food Co-Op, is a necessary evil performed for the cameras, with a nanny and a chef on hand for the rest of the time.
The insanity of modern parenthood is well-trod ground, but Sohn’s smart inclusion of celebrity culture raises the stakes beyond the standard fare of mom-lit. It is an innovation that works surprisingly well, blurring the lines between fact and fantasy, illusion and reality in the story much in the same way as the hyperrealism of the novel itself.
Parenting and celebrity cultures both define – or actually invent – the individual in relation to other people’s perceptions of them. There’s an interplay between watching and being watched that serves to validate our own prejudices. Good mothers are seen to breastfeed and give their children unique, meaningful names just as good celebrities adopt orphans and indulge in superficial eco-activism. Watching the characters’ illusions about themselves and one another implode over the course of a long hot summer is, well, a lot of fun.
Sohn has a keen eye for detail and a knack for parody. She’s nailed the pretentious kid names (‘Abbie-after-Abbie Hoffman’), the weird cliquishness of new mommy groups, and the tension between the different types at the ‘Teat’ Lounge. Her send-ups of film titles like The Undescended and Creeping are inspired. And though the names of childcare manuals like Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Jon and Myla Kabat-Zinn are real, they take on a new air of absurdity as Karen strives to emulate the authors’ recommendation to be ‘in the moment’ while stalking Melora outside her mansion.
The problem, however, is that even with all the little gems of observation and irony, the Schadenfreude soon gets old and there’s precious little else going with the characters in the way of enlightened self-awareness. In the end we’re left with four narcissistic women whom it is difficult to empathise with, let alone like.
A few peripheral characters are a bit more sympathetic, not least because they have a little moral courage. Mona stands out for having the courage to stand up for herself when she is ‘racially profiled’ at the Co-op and for her love of her grandson – she’s the only female character who seems actually to like children. Then there is Lee Nielsen (based on real-life resident Douglas Rushkoff) who is robbed at gunpoint and then criticised by his neighbours for reporting it – they’re worried that their property values will decline as a result. Lee abandons the Slope for Ithaca, New York. In truth, Ithaca is rather like Park Slope-in-the-Finger-Lakes, but at least he is willing to turn dissatisfaction into action.
The book is reminiscent of TV shows in the way it moves from scene to scene but also in the way it plays with reality. It is in the same mould as comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Entourage, in which fictional characters mingle with real people in real places. It comes as no surprise that Sarah Jessica Parker has bought the rights to turn Prospect Park West into an HBO series. You can practically see the opening sequence of Rebecca pushing her stroller up Union past the Tea Lounge, all the way up to Prospect Park to the tune of an obscure indie band version of the Talking Heads’ ‘Once in a Lifetime’ or a remixed polka.
Tracing this route myself I have mixed feelings about the hyperrealism of Prospect Park West. The magic of fiction is that in accepting its illusion we are able to look beyond it and see some more profound truths about our lives – things we can only really appreciate by making the leap of faith into abstraction. Sohn’s work occupies a strange and uncomfortable middle ground where the reader is left to wonder where they stand. I am reminded of sculptor Ron Mueck’s colossal, hyperrealistic figures. Prospect Park West, like his Prius-sized newborn, is so perfectly executed, so exquisitely detailed, that it is all too easy to forget that it is much larger than life.
Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.
Prospect Park West, by Amy Sohn, is published by Simon & Schuster. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)