Alternate Side
By Anna Quindlen (Random House, $28, 283 pages)

Anna Quindlen made her reputation as a keen observer of women’s lives (among other things) while an award-winning columnist for the New York Times. Her novels continue to reflect that skill. In “Alternate Side,” she tracks Nora Nolan at a pivotal time of life: children raised, mostly; career solid, mostly; marriage intact, mostly. She loves New York City, even as it’s settled down, like the edgy girl in college “who showed up at the reunion with a blow-dried bob and a little black dress, her nose-piercing closed up as though it had never existed.”

But when a neighbor with anger issues beats the neighborhood’s Hispanic handyman with a golf club, the incident becomes a lever, prying open questions about truth and loyalty, stereotypes and ambitions, love and tepid coexistence. The plot here is less important than the character sketches.

Quindlen is at her best in the regular exchanges between Nolan, who oversees the popular but artistically disregarded Museum of Jewelry, and a not-really-homeless man who nonetheless begs on its steps. They charge each other with inauthenticity, and their rationalizations illustrate how life can be made easier or more difficult depending upon how much you really care. We know Nora cares, because we are meant to identify with her. We care, right? So her difficulties ring true. How she sorts them out is both curious and, ultimately, affirming. Mostly.

Anna Quindlen will be at Barnes & Noble Galleria at 7 p.m. March 26 for “Girls Night Out.” Tickets $45-$50, which includes the book, wine and hors d’oeuvres.


Bizarre Romance
By Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell. (Abrams ComicArts, 158 pages, $24.99.)

In these 13 stories of love, disappointment, loyalty and magic, Audrey Niffenegger (“The Time Traveler’s Wife”) and her husband, cartoonist Eddie Campbell (“From Hell”), give us an attic infested with angels, a suspicious wife, some dead cats and (of course) some time travelers.

All of these characters are looking for love, though not always of the romantic kind (despite the title). Niffenegger has a weird and fertile imagination, which makes these tales absolutely delightful. Despite the fantastic circumstances and the otherworldly characters, each story focuses on the vulnerability, desires and humanity of her characters. (Even the dead ones.)

Some of these quirky stories are written as prose pieces, with illustrations. Most are comic strips, though, and Campbell’s brilliant illustrations range from whimsical to funny to realistic. The illustrations and the words complement each other nicely. These stories remind us of how powerful and unsettling — and, yes, sometimes bizarre — love is.