Better Homes and Husbands

Better Homes and Husbands

by Valerie Ann Leff


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312330637
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 07/01/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.62(d)

About the Author

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.

Read an Excerpt


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.

Reading Group Guide

980 Park is on the Northwest corner of Park Avenue and 83rd Street, a fictional, pre-war co-op that houses the rich and famous--Sidney Sapphire, the blonde anchorwoman on ABC news, Angela Somoza, the gorgeous Cuban jet-setter, Bob Horowitz, the former chairman of the UJA, and a Latino doorman who goes on to become a major fashion designer. The building shelters the usual collection of banking and industrial CEO's, Wall Street magnates, and white-haired philanthropists.
The building's board, rich as clotted cream, sips gin in the afternoons and devises ways to keep out anyone they possibly can. Stifled resentments come to a head when the French baroness in the penthouse dies, and two Jewish families in the building suspect the co-op board of more discrimination with regard to prospective buyers than might be legal.
Better Homes and Husbands is about class and caste feuds, played out with ferocity and etiquette, within the brick and limestone walls of one very exclusive address during a tumultuous period of social change.

1. The protagonist of Better Homes and Husbands is a New York City apartment building. What does this building represent? Are there places in your own world that play the same role as 980 Park Avenue does for the characters in this novel?
2. In the novel, there are many different characters, and several family stories are followed. Which characters did you find most sympathetic? Were there any who made you angry? Were there any that aroused your disapproval, but whom you liked anyway? Are there heroes and villains in this novel, or are those classifications dependent upon whose eyes we are looking through at any given point in the book?
3. How ethnic and economic class tensions play out in a setting like 980 Park Avenue is a major theme of the novel. Do you think your own ethnicity and economic status influenced which characters you preferred? Did the book make you think about other groups or types of people in a different way?
4. Many of the characters in Better Homes and Husbands are surprised or even thrown by events that happen over the course of the novel. Several of them have the experience that life does not turn out the way they expected. Which characters make projections about their futures that turn out to be mistaken? Which characters do you think are better off for having their lives take unexpected turns? Which ones might have fared better with no outside disturbance? Have there been external events in your own life that changed your expected course, and how do you feel about them? To what extent does the author seem to think we control our own destinies, and do you agree with her?
5. Since the focus of Better Homes and Husbands is the life of the building, not every character's own life story is wrapped up and not every individual issue is resolved. There are hints within the book, however, of what the future might bode for several characters:
- Vinnie has experienced outward success, but still has an internal struggle. Will this struggle block him in pursuing his dreams in life?
- What do you imagine will be the immediate consequence of Marley's discussion with his grandfather for his mother Sandra? What long-term trajectory is implied for the Payne family and the Payne apartment?
- Early in the chapter "Dick Sapphire's Tsuris," Dick describes his daughter Madeline as "floundering around single." In your opinion, will Madeline continue in the same vein after the end of that chapter or has something occurred within her that implies a change?
- At the end of "Dick Sapphire's Tsuris," Dick imagines that he will serve the rest of his term on the co-op board, then be voted out as the board returns to "business as usual." Given the trajectories of characters in other apartments in the building, do you think he is right or wrong?
- What has happened emotionally to Beverly Coddington by the end of the novel, and what choice do you think she will make in her life?
- As a reader, do you find it interesting or frustrating not to be told by the author what exactly will happen to each character at the end of the novel?
6. What larger-scale societal changes were taking place over the thirty-year time span of the novel? How did they influence the lives of the Better Homes and Husbands characters? Which of these have affected your life, your family and your community?
7. Was it enjoyable for you to read a novel written in several different voices? A little disorienting? A little bit like life itself? Why do you think the author chose this narrative strategy rather than a more traditional one?

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Better Homes and Husbands 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Set in a luxurious Manhattan apartment building, this book spans thirty years and divulges the secrets of various residents. But this story is more of an ensemble piece, so the stories don¿t necessarily interconnect. In my opinion the author did have an ideal opportunity to achieve a sense of cohesion by utilizing the character of Vinnie. In the beginning of the book he is working as a doorman in the building and eventually makes his way into a position of prominence by becoming a major fashion designer. The author could have taken it a step further by having Vinnie eventually purchasing the building¿s penthouse, thus making the story a rags to riches tale, or the little guy overcoming obstacles. Instead the characters and the story remain in a state of flux. However, I did thoroughly believe that the author had an insight to the often insulated world of Manhattan¿s Upper East Side and manages to create credible characters and plausible stories.