“But I am just a housewife, I remind myself — a housewife painting in torn underwear, worn inside out. I throw off my robe and grab the blue denim work shirt hanging on the back of the door. I’ve kept this ragged shirt since college — a promise to myself I’d never give up.” -Alex Pearl
Sande Bortiz Berger takes us on a journey into the Pearls’ last ditch effort to salvage their quickly staling marriage where instead we find a delightful coming of age story of Alex Pearl, a housewife fighting for a greater sense of purpose.
Split-Level presents itself as a look at a marriage in the post-Nixon era. The Pearls, married seven years with two children, take a dive into the swinging lifestyle that tantalized suburban couples of the seventies, and get more than they bargained for. And it is mostly about that. We meet Alex and Donny Pearl at a crucial point in their marriage- demonstrated early through Alex’s speedy enrollment of the couple into a weekend workshop called “Marriage Mountain” after she finds out that Donny has been giving late night driving lessons to the cute babysitter. This seems almost too obvious of a plot line to take, but Berger does not keep us here long.
The idea of attending Marriage Mountain makes us feel like everything is okay…until we actually get to Marriage Mountain. Berger makes it apparent pretty quickly that this is the final chance to save their marriage. I honestly wish I had cared about the fate of the Pearls (as a unit) more, but Alex Pearl became my main interest pretty quickly.
Alex is entering her 30’s. She is an artist, but she dismisses it as a hobby feigning that being a mother gives her all the satisfaction she needs. Similarly, her husband Donny Pearl, works in the family business making ladies undergarments- all the while wishing he had gone back to school and pursued his passion. Berger builds this tension between the Pearls slowly increasing the pressure that both Donny and Alex feel as individuals in their personal endeavors, driving a wedge between them. Donny is immature, self-conscious, and doesn’t get the validation he desperately desires from Alex or his boss-father. Hence, the late night driving lessons with the babysitter. Berger draws Donny and Alex further apart with the stark difference in their motivations- Donny’s desperate need for validation from others and Alex’s need for validation from within.
When Donny and Alex dip their toes in the open marriage pool, they officially don’t feel like the Pearls anymore. By opening up this world of curiosity in our characters that they truly have no idea how to navigate, both Alex and Donny’s lives- in general- begin to change. Donny gets a demotion at work, Alex sees success in her side hustle and finds new inspiration for her art. All of a sudden, Alex can see herself as a 3-dimensional person with thoughts and feelings and desires and that reflects in the art she creates. Donny seems as if he’s simply hopped from one relationship to another with Paula Bell (the female counterpart of their partner couple).
The details of the Pearls’ relationship with the Bells was so auxiliary to me (and I don’t want to ruin it for you!!!) that I almost don’t even want to mention it other than that it was a vehicle. It gave me drama and helped drive Alex to destination self, which was all I could’ve asked. I will note, though, that Berger did a really important and smart thing by having the messy navigation of swinging reflected in the Pearls’ and Bells’ children. This was a major grounding moment for Alex seeing that this lifestyle change wasn’t as simple as sending the kids away for a weekend and trying to be secretive. A similar moment is when Alex finds out later that so many more people knew about their arrangement with the Bells than she thought, and what TRUTH! The realness of this situation was so good.
Alex Pearl’s story arc was dynamic, real, and invigorating to experience. It’s easy to tell the sexy story of the swinging couple that gets off on the idea of swapping partners, but it is daring and brave to tell the story of the couple that tries and fails in a time where failing is not an option.
Have y’all read Split-Level, yet? What did you think?
If you haven’t read it yet, you can purchase it HERE.