Once upon a time in Manhattan . . .
. . . there stood a pair of fine old brick townhouses on West Tenth Street. One had a blue door with a tarnished brass knocker in the shape of a dolphin. The other was empty. Behind the blue door lived Sadie, the widow of a famous British rocker who died of an overdose, and two of her children, Hamish and Deen.
The children manage to muddle along as best they can with a loving but distracted mother. But their whole world changes when the house next door gets a new owner—a mysterious Southerner who quickly endears himself to his new neighbors, taking them—and their friends—under his protective wing. In doing so, he transforms everything.
Magical, lively, lovely, and unique, The Ballad of West Tenth Street is a contemporary urban fairy tale that delightfully reimagines real life.
About the Author
Marjorie Kernan, a former painter, owns an antiques shop on the coast of Maine. This is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
The Ballad of West Tenth Street
On Fifth Avenue, in lower Manhattan, at the corner of Eleventh Street, stands the First Presbyterian Church, a gloomy edifice made of blackened sandstone. Should you turn there and walk along West Eleventh, you will pass the row house the Weather Underground blew up while dabbling in explosives, then the New School's glass and steel building, and finally Gene's Restaurant and the back dining room of Charlie Mom's, where couples glumly eat sautéed broccoli and mu shu pork.
Cross Sixth Avenue to West Tenth Street, past where the old Jefferson Market courthouse stands on an island, its clock tower a finger raised to the sky and its booming note a reminder to passersby that they are either late, on time, or free of such cares.
West of Seventh Avenue the cross streets run off at a southerly angle. With this shift comes a sense of entering another New York, an older and less orderly one. The names of the streets change as well, from utilitarian numbers to names evoking distant landowners, orchards, and inns. The noise of traffic recedes. Sparrows chitter in the trees.
The remaining Federal townhouses of the West Village keep company with every conceivable architectural fad: high Victorian apartment blocks with Gothic porticos, brick cottages with a galleon in stained glass on each window, stolid Civil War-era merchant's houses with stables behind, engine companies with arched red doors, twenties white brick garages and brownstones. Most of the buildings have an expensive, well-groomed air but a few tenements survive, bra-zenly declaring their poverty, their stone facades coatedin dingy beige paint and a row of dented trash cans chained to their front.
Go a little farther and you'll cross Bleecker Street, with its boutiques and French pastry shops. Near the end of the next block stand a pair of fine old brick townhouses. One has a blue door with a tarnished brass knocker in the shape of a dolphin. The other is empty. A handsome sign declares it For Sale. The Cavendish Group, it reads, Is Pleased to Announce this Very Fine Property. A telephone number is obligingly given below.
From the house with the blue door, a bang and a clatter comes from the narrow kitchen area below the street. The door opens and a boy with long reddish hair hauls out a carton. "Seven, eight," he counts as he drops bottles from the carton into a bin, the bottles clanking. He shakes his head and goes back inside.
Clumping, making as much noise as possible, as is the nature of boys, he climbs three flights of stairs to the attic floor. There he flops down on one end of the blue leather sofa in front of the TV, which is blank.
"Eight," he announced to his sister, who sat at the other end of the sofa. "Eight in one week. She's drinking like mad again."
"Uh-huh," Deen said, not really listening.
"I'm gonna draw a picture of her liver, all green and purple, and paste it up in her bathroom. Or maybe I'll do one of her puking it right out." He took a pad of paper and a box of colored pencils from the table and began some preliminary lines.
"You have noticed she's acting pretty weird again lately? When's the full moon, do you know?"
"No. Oh, I get it. Okay, I'll check—the paper's right here, hang on a sec. Oh geeze, it's Saturday."
"Aw, shit! And she always drinks more on weekends. What if she goes bonkers again with the pills and all, and this time they don't pump her stomach out in time? What if she dies and we're poor pitiful orphans and have to be adopted by some Mormon family or something, some people who do good works and all that shit, and you'll have to wear gingham dresses down to your ankles and marry some old lech named Jezekial?"
"Geeze, Hames, what'd you eat for breakfast, a bowl of raw paranoia? Munster'll be fine. She only lost track of how many pills she'd taken that one time. Besides, Uncle Brian would adopt us."
"Yeah, then why'd she bake a tennis shoe for dinner last night? With tomatoes, for Christ's sake."
"Okay," Deen said wearily. "I tell you what—we'll get up in the middle of the night to check on her. We can take turns. I'll find a little mirror to hold over her mouth to make sure she's still breathing."
Hamish responded with a dissatisfied sigh. He began a new drawing. Deen went back to her book.
"Hey Deen?" he said. "You think we'll grow up to be like them?"
"Lushes and pill poppers, you mean? Or junkies?"
"I've got a theory about it all, you want to hear it?"
"Be my guest. I'm sure it's highly scientific."
"Well, it is. It's this: You and I got Pops's hair, right? And sort of his looks. And Gretchen's got Munster's hair and totally her looks. So Munster's crazy and drinks and Gretchen's crazy, so that means you and I are more likely to turn out like Pops."
"Dead of an overdose at thirty-nine? Thanks, Hames. But I'm happy to inform you that it's not all that simple. For one thing I'm going to be a classical pianist, not some crazed rocker. And Munster and Gretchen are crazy because Pops died. You and I aren't, because we were too little to miss him."
"I guess. So what do you think I'll be when I grow up?"
"I dunno. You're too young to tell yet. An artist of some kind probably. What're you drawing?"
"Pops dead in the hotel room. I made his skin just ever so slightly green, see?"
"It's pretty good. You think he really made that big a mess in the room when he died, though?"
"Naw, he ran around messing everything up before."The Ballad of West Tenth Street. Copyright © by Marjorie Kernan. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
What People are Saying About This
“Marjorie Kernan writes about the city as if she sees it with entirely new eyes and is introducing it to her readers for the first time, a trick that shouldn’t work, but does, marvelously.”
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A modern fairy tale set in New York, this novel centers around two row houses which are inhabited by two very different families. Packed with authentic characters, this slice-of-life tale is charming, sweet and wise. Almost a year after I read it, I can still hear her characters in my head as if they were my friends -- high praise, indeed. With a bit of scary reality and several unexpected plot twists, Kernan's first book shines.
This book made me miserable throughout, and I only finished out of stubbornness, and because I was stuck with it while visiting my mom over the weekend, and because I just quit a book a couple of weeks ago (for the same reason I wanted to quit this one) and didn't want to do it again so soon. Poor writing abounds here, as in prose riddled with cliches and horrid metaphors plus entirely unbelievable characters.For example, at the beginning we are presented with a main character whose alcoholism seems out of control, and given the rather effective image of her 12-year-old son dolefully counting the empty bottles as he drops them into the recycling bin. But it turns out that this woman's steady drinking has no more effect on her than constant imbibing affected Nick and Nora Charles. While I love the Thin Man movies, by now we know better. The teenage kids are too erudite, the neighbors all entirely too beneficent, and there is a character revelation on page 260 that literally made me curse aloud.Characterizations and prose like this:"Kristen, in all truth, lied to herself mightily with her next thought. She thought how much she liked Sadie. She was so bohemian, such a character, and hadn't she stayed unmarried since Ree had passed away? That's the term Kristen invariably used for death."Metaphors like this . . ."Above, a pair of screech owls called to each other, their sounds as infinite a part of the forest as all the other parts of it . . . "Cliches, etc . . .A man in a coma, viewed in the hospital for the first time, hooked up to all the attendant tubes and machinery is described like so: "He looked like something the cat dragged in."And then this . . ."Titus (he is a cat) prowled around (his owner's--a street person) supine form and the broken ground outside, killing rats and mice and eating them with wondrous relish, . . ."It is that "wondrous" that depresses me so much. What is "wondrous" about the appetite of a starving cat? This is a whole book full of such adverbs. It's as if the story were being told us by some fictional, cliched old aunt, the kind that only exists in bad fairy tales. (And, yes, the back of the book describes this novel as "a contemporary urban fairy tale," so I guess I should have been warned.) There is a page-long scene told us through the eyes of, I kid you not, an old, stone carving.But that clunkiness becomes particularly maddening when the "wondrous mouse" passage ends thusly:"Thus, the old captain and his cat shared hours of sleep in the dusty, strewn depot, two more objects among the broken furniture." A lovely image! See? You can do it! All this time we could have been friends!The take-away, then, is what? That Harper Perennial no longer has editors? That they think people want to read prose littered with the rotting hulks of festering cliches and fabulously over-precious observations? Is it because the author is a woman and publishers now have so little respect for their female audience? They don't really think women will buy anything as long as it's written by another woman, do they?On the back cover we're told, "Marjorie Kernan, a former painter, owns an antiques shop on the coast of Maine. This is her first novel." In the "Meet Marjorie Kernan" section at the end of the book, we're told, "Several years ago, while sitting in a truck cab in France, bored out of her mind, she began to think of writing a novel."So now I can add a third item, along with marriage and parenthood, to things one shouldn't decide to do out of boredom.Kernan, according to that Meet the Author section, is at work on another novel. I hope it will be better. I hope she will become a famous, quality novelist and The Ballad of West Tenth Street becomes that first novel the nobody ever reads.
The story can be sad and sweet all at the same time. I love fiction set in my fav city, Manhattan, and this one fits that category. It's nice to get a little city neighborhood history as well. It's a good read but something .... Maybe the sadness? ... Keeps it from great status. Definitely read it.
The Ballad of West Tenth Street by Marjorie Kernan contains a diverse roster of characters and personalities you'd probably be friends with if you were an eccentric bohemian living in the West Village. You can pick your friends but not your neighbors. The myriad of personalities--weak and strong, good and evil, lost and unaware give the novel a roller coaster-like feel. I enjoyed the segmented chapters making it an easy transition from character to character. There are many surprising twists and turns that make the story amazingly interesting. Sometimes people try to remind us that you can give of yourself until it hurts. I hope they make this novel into a movie. If they do, I'll be the first in line on opening day. I look forward to her next novel.