Short story writer and novelist, Sande Boritz Berger, who grew up on the south shore of Long Island, completed the MFA program in writing and literature from Stony Brook Southampton College, where she was awarded the Deborah Hecht Memorial Prize in Fiction. For years, she has also attended the Stony Brook Southampton summer writing program.
A strong advocate of writing groups, she kept going to workshops even as her career path took her into scriptwriting and video producing. In “Split-Level,” she returns to her first and continuing passion — fiction — and a reader can see how decades writing for the mass media and exposure to “amazing writers” in the MFA program have informed her novels. Boritz Berger has a good ear for dialogue, especially the internal kind. In “Split-Level,” her first-person protagonist, self-aware, attractive but insecure, has conversations with herself. Little does she realize how life-shattering they will become. And little does the reader anticipate how it will all turn out.
Alex Pearl, a young wife and mother and occasional painter living in suburban New Jersey, appears to be happily married to Donny, her teenage sweetheart, and deliciously in love with their two young daughters, though she allows her brash-talking good friend Rona to intimidate her daily on the phone, especially about shopping and decorating: “How can I so easily distinguish each Modigliani, a Manet from a Monet, but remain pathetically lost on chuck roast, tenderloin, and filet?”
Alex also defers to her good-looking, restless, and frustrated husband who defers to his father, having given up hopes to make it in music, his love, in order to continue the family business: manufacturing high-end brassieres. In other words, Alex is settled into traditional marriage and motherhood, though she warily observes the failings of her own parents’ marriage.
But wait: Boritz Berger sets her tale in the 1970s when, as readers of a certain age recall, the swinging ’60s seduced many young people into thinking they could make the earth move by way of sexual and political revolution. Not a time to be in the bra business, for sure, but also, as Alex discovers slowly and fearfully, not a time to count on traditions or conventions (religious and societal) to counter the influence of Woodstock.
“The post-Nixon era was a time of great change,” the author says, “a shake-up of sorts when people took their government and maybe even lives for granted” and saw everything shift, creating “instability and mistrust . . . The changes affected families, marriages, jobs, and our country’s future.” Be happy was the mantra, be “free.” As a married neighbor says to Alex, “It’s certainly tough work, staying home and raising kids, plus I hear the pay is lousy.” The neighbor is Charlie Bell, who’s sexy as well as sympathetic.
Even if Alex seems a passive player in the counter culture seeping its bohemian way into “split-level” life — the title obviously symbolizes suburban house and home — she does smoke pot and follows the beat of funk and rock. Still, when she realizes that her husband may have a roving eye (and more), her instinct is a couple’s retreat dedicated to marriage counseling — scenes Bortiz-Berger explores with humor and pathos. She knows how to make character change credible, avoid cliché, and integrate the complexities of desire, guilt, and mistrust. She also enjoys crafting steamy sex scenes.
In light of the #MeToo movement and advances women have made in the workplace and in defining and refining their personal identities, “Split-Level” takes on special significance, especially considering how Boritz Berger resolves her plot complications. Although the author has said that today, unlike the 1970s, women today feel support with other women, “making us more cohesive and less fearful to ask for what we want and to express what we cannot accept: the unacceptable,” she knows that women still find themselves in complicated, often guilt-ridden relationships if not with spouses, then with parents and grown children. This is especially true for single mothers, who have split from, or have been split off by, their partners. Marriage has always been challenging, Boritz Berger says. Women struggle and much still gets put on hold “sometimes for many years, sometimes, forever.”
“Split-Level” is certain to engage discussion in the kind of workshops or book clubs the author has enjoyed, both for its cultural history as well as for how she uses style and structure to represent the ’70s in a way that resonates for our own day.