Prospect Park West: In Park Slope, Hell Is Other Parents

In the much-ballyhooed Prospect Park West, Amy Sohn welcomes her readers to Park Slope, where the women are mean, the men are asexual, and all the children wear kneepads.

The novel follows four moms: Rebecca, who's self-absorbed and nasty; Melora, who's self-absorbed and a Hollywood actress; Lizzie, who's lost and sad; and Karen, who's straight-up crazy. Doree Shafrir wrote that the book heralded a "new narrative of the New York woman," and Sohn herself commented, "There's so much anxiety around finding a mate that no one really thinks about the actual marriage when they're trying to find someone." But if her book is about "the actual marriage," I'm joining a nunnery.

Few of the couples in the book seem to have married because they actually liked each other. Rebecca married Theo because "she had slept with every smart artistic cutie south of Fourteenth St and was beginning to wonder how she was going to meet anyone new," while Karen wed Matty so she could move to Park Slope. Lizzie does seem to feel love and lust for her husband Jay, but she took up with him only after finding out her long-term girlfriend didn't want children. Marriage in Prospect Park West seems largely a vehicle for procreation — but procreation isn't all that much fun either. Rebecca's jealous of her kid, Lizzie doesn't know what to do with hers, Melora's son is raised by nannies, and Karen just wants more.

It's no accident that having children in Prospect Park West, like buying real estate, often seems more about status than about love. Sohn is clearly aiming to create a biting comedy of manners, a beach-read version of Edith Wharton. And the novel does succeed in sending up a competitive culture of upper-middle-class mothering. The characters' ambivalence about their kids and their stay-at-home lives feels authentic, as does the atmosphere of anxiety and overprotection that pervades Park Slope. I didn't believe any mom would make her kid play in kneepads, like Karen does — until I saw it in Prospect Park.

But "new narrative?" Is it really new to say that middle-class parents overprotect their children? That parents in general don't have enough sex? That yuppies are self-absorbed and obsessed with real estate? Sohn seems confident that her characters reflect the real Park Slope — she told Shafrir "It's a very undersexed neighborhood" — but this observation too feels like a stereotype. To give us a new narrative of Park Slope you'd have to show us parents fucking wildly while their toddlers drink real Coke and watch television. Which might actually be more satisfying than Prospect Park West.

The novel is an absorbing read, thanks mainly to the totally batshit Karen, who basically blackmails Melora into being her famous friend. And it's true that Sohn seems to be tapping into a vein of ennui and insecurity that may darken the lives of even the most privileged moms. But I still got the feeling that Prospect Park West was a book written to make its readers feel superior to its characters. Their marriages are so bad, their values so screwed up, their gestures at liberalism so laughable in light of their venality, that I felt like I'd been invited to a party just to make fun of the guests.

Early in the novel, Rebecca and Lizzie are sitting in Park Slope's Tea Lounge making fun of the other mothers:

"God, they're old," said Rebecca, pointing to the mothers arranged in a circle around a coffee table [...]
"They spent their lives making an effort," Lizzie said, "and now they have the kid so they don't have to."
"It's not like this in Tribeca," Rebecca said. "I once took Abbie to the Washington Market playground, and I saw a hot woman pushing her kid on the swings. She turned out to be Christy Turlington. I felt so bad for the normal mothers in Tribeca. They must have such low self-esteem."
"In Park slope we're Christy Turlington," Lizzie said.

Prospect Park West feels like one long "we're Christy Turlington," a fun but empty fuck-you to a bunch of people we don't really know.

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Prospect Park West