Book excerpt

Better Homes and Husbands

Valerie Ann Leff

St. Martin's Press


On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the building is limestone and red brick, a heavy front door of black iron tracery, a gray canvas canopy with its white-lettered address, Nine-eighty Park Avenue. Here, wealthy New Yorkers occupy grand apartments with their children, cooks and maids. A super lives in the basement, managing doormen, handymen. Throughout the year, drivers in long shiny cars wait by the curb. Nannies push strollers to Central Park, and delivery boys bring groceries around to the service entrance. There are dinner parties, guests, cocktails. Greetings exchanged in the lobby, gossip whispered in the back elevator.

Over time, the building changes. Children grow up, go off to prep school, college. Or they flee, disappointing their parents. Residents die or sometimes move away. An apartment is vacant, and new families up the ante on multimillion-dollar bids and apply to the co-op board. Many are turned down. Families in the building interact--or they don't. Over time, they watch one another, perceive and misperceive, play out feuds of class and caste with ferocious etiquette. There are quiet revolutions, and the inhabitants of the building adjust--some gladly, some with dismay.

In 980 Park Avenue, during the last three decades of the twentieth century, stories have layered the walls of high-ceilinged apartments like coats of plaster, wallpaper, paint; voices linger like the scent of spices in the kitchen cabinets. A suicide, a strike, a seventeen-year-old girl pregnant. A scandalous arrest in the late 1980s. A lawsuit barely averted by the co-op board. No one knows the whole history, and the truth is understood in pieces by one resident or another, by a daughter, a friend of the family, by a doorman. The truth is told in stories, in voices tinged with opinion, envy, regret. The truth is kept in the building, never completely revealed.

The building is brick, mortar, limestone, lath and plaster. Plumbing and wires run through it. The building is also stories and lives, concurrent and overlapping. On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the building, 980 Park Avenue, holds these stories within its walls, silent, like a book....

BETTER HOMES AND HUSBANDS Copyright © 2004 by Valerie Ann Leff.

Valerie Ann Leff is co-director of the Great Smokies Writing Program at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. Portions of this novel have appeared in The Antioch Review, Chelsea, Lilith, and the South Carolina Review.