Meet the Hollander family.
Sadie, a mother of three and the widow of an ex-rock ‘n' roll star, is also an alcoholic displaying a somehow liberal way of raising her kids. In her house with the dolphin-shaped door knocker, she lives in a world of never-ending hangovers, stepping into reality only to protect, support and advise her kids - and fix them sometimes surprising meals.
Deen, 14, is a hard-working, strong-minded piano player verging on genius. Her heart is one of a teenager, longing for romance, friendship, justice, and love for all. But when she faces violence and meanness, she can fight back mercilessly and show sharp claws, will and ingenuity.
Hamish, 12, is hungry, craving food, of course, as all growing teenage boys do, but also keen to play the guitar like his father, willing to learn how to cook, wanting to know what’s going on next door, and making acquaintance with unconventional people including a disabled boy and a tramp.
Gretchen, 16, is the odd one of the pack. A reserved girl with a real talent for painting, she suddenly decides to exclude herself from the world and stops talking. When she cuts herself badly and repeatedly, she is sent to a psychiatric ward and becomes a phantom among other phantoms, trying to rebuild herself surrounded by white walls and incomprehension.
And there’s Brian Burker, aka Brian Brain, Sadie's dead husband's best pal, the rhythm guitar player in his band, and a sort of cool uncle for the kids, wearing jeans and leather boots and swearing like a trooper. An adulated rock star in the ‘60s, he now helps bands put proper music together. The only one left from Sadie's famous past, he is the rock she can lean on - and share joints with.
When this colorful lot meets their new old-fashioned neighbor and his trail of employees (an interior designer with a precise and efficient taste for organization, a cook whose cuisine would convert the most convinced ascetic, and an independent plumber doubled with an excellent piano player), their lives are turned upside down. They all get to know, in their own ways and experiences, what goodness, care and friendship really mean.
Without ever being soppy or clichéd, Marjorie Kernan writes the life on the inhabitants of the West Tenth Street as Armistead Maupin did for his Barbary Lane. She tells us about the life of assorted people brought together by chance in a particular city (not Maupin's San Francisco this time, but New York) during times of selfishness and exclusion. With the same sharp eye for details and caustic dialog, she describes humanity’s strength and weaknesses, with both tenderness and bitter realism.
The story moves back and forth between our protagonists, giving an impression of lightness and suspense. We jump from one story to the other like a bee on a bunch of flowers, sustaining ourselves with tasty draughts of their lives, and we perpetually ache to know how the others are doing, hoping it will turn out for the best.
Kernan's style is easy to read, alternating between succulent dialog full of swear words and short, vivid descriptions of the characters and their surroundings. The chapters are six to eight pages long and are cut into sections, making it even easier and lighter to digest: an ideal read for the summer.
But as we turn the last page, some questions remain unanswered. What is Sadie's life like when she comes back from London? How is Captain Meat doing after the tragedy? How are Gretchen and Liall getting on? How about Ettie and Robert? What happened to the Angry One? When creating this delightful gallery of portraits, Marjorie Kernan gives us the beginning of something, just like Armistead Maupin did with his first Tales of the City. Let us hope that she will follow her successful compatriot and make The Ballad of West Tenth Street the start of an enjoyable long-lived saga.