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Book Review: Upper West Side Story

It took Susan Pashman 14 years to complete Upper West Side Story, a novel about race relations and “urban parenting.” Life intervened, she says: marriage, children, but she must know that her tale now could not be more timely.

For Bettina Grosjean, Pashman’s feisty, liberal, tiger mom heroine, who’s white, Martin Luther King’s dream of an America providing equal opportunity for all, though under siege, is still real.

Passionate about moving on from the racial hatreds of the gang-culture fifties, depicted in the famous musical West Side Story, Bettina embraces and promotes the dream  in her Upper West Side neighborhood. And she does so with the loving support of her closest friend, Viola Nightingale, who’s black. But the dream becomes a nightmare when a tragic accident involving their 13-year-old sons – both chess champions and for years the best of buddies – tests the friendship of the two women, and challenges their progressive multiracial goals for their school’s enrichment program. The accident also challenges Bettina’s marriage and the juvenile justice system in New York City, as racial politics plays out in all its manipulative and destructive ugliness, abetted by a narcissistic community spokesman, and by weak and fearful city officials. But as Bettina hangs on to her ideals, pursuing the truth about the accident and seeking justice, she finds herself isolated from some of the very people she thought she could count on to fight accusations against her son. Even her smart, politically well-connected husband cautions her to play the political game, not try to win it. She perseveres, but not without stumbling and having to run to a therapist.

Some might suggest that Pashman’s story, an urban tale told by a white angered by racial injustice, might not have been told by a black, just as in the book sympathetic blacks are urged not to side with Bettina.  Regardless, Upper West Side Story is impressive. It captures with amazing authenticity in dialogue and interior monologue the slang and straight speech of a diversity of characters – white and black, adults and children, including Bettina’s precious 9-year-old daughter, and Bettina’s frail mother, a Holocaust survivor whose horror widens the scope of both hatred and hope

Upper West Side Story is no sociological exploration in the guise of fiction. Pashman knows how to write. She structures the novel as alternating first-person voices – Bettina’s and that of her son, whose journal she has come across after his ordeal has ended. The story, which is presented with sensitivity and suspense, is a disturbing tale of tribal behavior due to race. Pashman has no answers, but in an accompanying Q & A she does say that she hopes her novel will contribute positively to “the national conversation” about this most important issue of our time.

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