There is an allure to lives that intersect momentarily to form communities in apartment buildings. Stories about strangers, brought together by chance, that form deep bonds through quotidian contact, have been romanticized and dramatized in twentieth century American culture from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series (1978-2014), to the television drama, Melrose Place (1992-1999). Kathleen Alcott’s new book, Infinite Home, adds to this cultural niche in a beautifully understated, but powerful way.
Told in short chapters that rotate points of view, Alcott opens the door and invites readers to get to know the group of lost souls living in Edith’s dilapidated Brooklyn brownstone. The tenants—Edward, a former stand-up comic; Adelene, a young woman who suffers from agoraphobia; Thomas, an artist coming to terms with the stroke that left him partially paralyzed; and Paulie, a young man with Williams Syndrome—look out for one another and for their loosely formed community. Alcott’s quiet language draws readers in to meet these characters, and stay for a moment in this microcosm that rebuffs much of the loudness of New York City’s bustling culture.
However, all is not well with Edith and her apartment building. When Edith’s health declines, her greedy son, Owen, swoops in with grand plans of placing her in a nursing home, evicting all the tenants, and flipping the building for an extraordinary profit. As the residents rally around Edith and deal with an uncertain future, relationships grow stronger, and each one of the residents must face his or her fears to save the life they love and value. A trip to northern California allows Edith to reunite with her long-lost daughter, Jenny, who dropped out in the 1960s and never returned. The reunification brings a sense of closure to Edith’s decades-long family drama, leaving her to die in peace. But the trip also brings new strength to some of the apartment residents, especially Thomas and Adelene. With Jenny’s help, the apartment building is saved for the tenants, but no one returns to the brownstone unchanged.
While some of the plot lines seem a bit coincidental and a little too easy, it is really Alcott’s use of language and her well-rounded characters that draw readers into this book and allow it to be about so much more than a group of Brooklynites living with the threat of gentrification. Instead, this book reminds readers that all people, even those who have fallen through society’s cracks, have value and importance. In an increasingly mobile world, Alcott’s book insists that readers contemplate the many definitions of home we all hold and spend our lives searching for. In a subtle and profound way, Alcott shows readers that the residents of this unassuming brownstone have found what so many people strive to build through endlessly purchasing Ikea lamps and mid-century modernist décor, a sense of home. And that is something important upon which to reflect.
Infinite Home by Kathleen Alcott (Riverhead Books |9781594633638 | August 4, 2015)