The Other Side of Him
California County Press, 2016
There’s little difference between the 1950s and now, at least when it comes to the protection of women from male predators. Such is the grim realization reading Alice Rene’s novel The Other Side of Him. Yet, there is a brilliance to Rene’s novel in that it shows just how a young, determined woman can persevere creating the foundation for a life for herself on her own terms.
The first sentence of the novel, “I wrapped my hand around the switchblade in my pocket as I stepped onto the sidewalk at the bus stop near the housing project where my family lived,” lets the reader know that we aren’t dealing with some idealized or romantic version of the 1950s of post-war America.
Growing up in Chicago, Claire Wagner and her brother Tom are the children of a German immigrant mother. Claire’s mother survived World War II Germany but not without scars. It’s revealed her father was a Nazi (unbeknown by her mother) who proceeded to abandon his wife immediately after the children were born. This is more than a mere salacious tidbit. It establishes the context from which Claire comes and suggests why she is so determined to be a social worker and not allow herself to be bullied into marriage, “I want to be able to support myself–whether or not I’m married.” This desire compels Claire to leave Chicago for the West Coast and the Bay Area where she earns an advanced degree in social work and begins her career.
Greg is a successful surgeon whom Claire goes out on a blind date. At first, Claire finds Greg attractive and charming. But even in the first interactions we see cracks in the veneer. Greg is not just short tempered (with wait staff and children) but seemingly always on the cusp of violence. Soon the ticks begin to add up–bursts of anger, demands to always know her whereabouts, a refusal to take her job or interests seriously, lashing out at others who have even casual friendly relationship with Claire.
But Claire isn’t some damsel. She is a first generation and practical feminist. What do I mean by that? She is an educated woman fighting to make her own way and stand on her own two feet. She’s not contemptuous or hostile to the traditional notions of marriage or building a family, but she will not let stolid ideas of what a woman’s place is keep her from fulfilling herself. So when Greg becomes too forward, Claire stands her ground explaining how she never lead him on and that how he acted was out of line: “Since when is saying, ‘Stop!’ a mixed message? What was ‘mixed’ about my yelling ‘Let me go’ so loud?” She thinks deliberately and earnestly about her self and her relationship as she endures the traditional pressures to settle down coming from her mother:
“I have my reasons,” I said after I got bawled out in German and English. “So I’ll be an old maid. That’s better than being married to the wrong man.”
This isn’t a story about a woman willfully enduring abuse unable to leave an abusive relationship. Rather, it’s a story about a woman who takes the bold step of refusing to be bullied, abused, and stalked. When the good doctor finally steps over the line of civility, Claire is assertive, “I’m done with you, Greg. I don’t want to see you again.” She walks out on him clenching that switchblade in her pocket her entire walk home through dark city streets.
But Greg isn’t done with Claire and here is where the novel takes a turn into a world rarely explored in fiction–an honest appraisal of stalking from the victim’s point of view. Rene writes Claire with confidence and readers won’t help but see in her a very accomplished young woman who has the misfortune of crossing paths with an abuser. Greg confronts her on the street, stakes out her apartment, barges in on her at work and even flies to Chicago to confront her at her mother’s home. When Claire files a restraining order (a novelty in the 1950s), it is hardly a shield. Yet it is the only practical course of action she can take.
Make no mistake, Rene isn’t writing polemic fiction. In fact, her prose moves swiftly and naturally covering so much of the banal and mundane minutiae of everyday life that the incursion of Greg into it is both shocking and obviously hostile. Rene accomplishes this in two ways. Firstly, she writes Claire honestly alongside her best friend and roommate Barb. There is a parallel story with Barb, another social worker, who is trying to live her life as a full working woman too. She encounters sour relationships but to an degree more ordinary than what Claire is enduring. However, both women through their friendship buttress each other’s intentions and resolve. These aren’t two rivals (a trope used more times than not in fiction when portraying women characters) but two genuine friends. Secondly, Claire’s brother Tom (responsible for setting her up with Greg) is a character straddling the fence. He at once makes excuses for Greg while questioning Claire’s judgment but then is able to see how he’s getting it wrong, how he ought and does trust his sister more than a mere acquaintance just because he’s a fellow man. Tom’s growth on the page is often instantaneous which I find refreshing. Internalized sexism isn’t something that necessarily needs to be grappled with in men; it’s something that can be identified immediately and course corrected for if only the will exists.
So it is to Barb, her brother, and her co-workers that Claire seeks solace after Greg has followed her to New York and assaulted her in Central Park caveman-like dragging her across the paved paths in front of everyone. But the great thing that Rene manages to write is that there are always strangers willing to step in and challenge Greg’s abuse. Back in San Francisco things come to ahead and a massive confrontation between Greg and Claire sets her on a difficult road in life.
Events force her to quit her caseworker job and become a waitress. Her story becomes a gossip piece in the newspapers nearly sinking her chances of getting back into her profession. It is sobering to realize that this was a time when an employer could casually reply to a job applicant, “It seems you’re quite the celebrity–most of my staff read about in the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m afraid you’d be too much of a distraction at the hospital.”
Claire persists, refusing to let the aggression of one man derail her career. Over the course of doing so she develops a new relationship. But similarly, she will not allow her personal life sidetrack her. In a scene that would have been written by a lesser author as an ultimatum, an ‘it’s either me or your career,’ Rene has Claire very directly tell her new San Francisco beau about the jobs she’s interviewing for in Los Angeles–“I’ll probably take it if the hospital and the job seem right. I know how much I want to get back to casework, but I also know–I don’t want to be away from you.”
When her beau states that he wants to make his own way, she uses that same reasoning to explain why she needs to move where her career is taking her and not simply where he is, “You know how you told me maybe you needed to see what kind of stuff you’re made of?” The asking has a two fold purpose: she is not only thinking the same for herself but also suggesting that he needs to apply this not just to his work but his own place in their relationship. It’s Barb talking to Tom who gets to express what Claire is striving to articulate “you must know by now that Claire and I aren’t like most women. We worked hard to get our degrees. We’re really good at casework. We’re not going to give all that up so fast.” This sentiment was revolutionary in the 1950s and is still a bold statement almost 70 years later.
There are three very clear acts in Alice Rene’s novel building up a tight, compelling story. Rene writes Claire with precision (her reaction to her trauma is vivid as well as her ability to overcoming it), she depicts Chicago and San Francisco with a stark but endearing realism, and she leaves it up to the reader to garner lessons from the narrative. The Other Side of Him isn’t a novel of a survivor but of a victor who endures.
Alice was called Ilse when she was a six-year-old girl and watched Nazi troops march down her street in Vienna. She did not know how much danger that event meant for her Jewish family. A miraculous escape and eventual survival, as well as the trials and tribulations of the refugee years that followed in Portland, Oregon, are told with both pathos and humor in her award-winning memoir, Becoming Alice. After graduating from high school, Alice moved to California where she earned bachelor and master degrees at UC Berkeley. She has worked as a medical social worker and travel consultant, escorting groups to exotic foreign destinations where most travelers would not go independently. These adventures were filmed by her husband, edited and narrated by Alice, and shown to schools, clubs sand social groups. Alice and her husband live in a rural area in southern California where she can be found testing a new recipe for her next dinner party, tending her succulents, or walking her Golden Retriever.
This book review was commissioned. Find out how you can get your novel, novella, collection of short stories, or poetry reviewed by reading my Review Policy.
If you liked this article, then consider supporting me via my Patreon site. Even a small pledge helps.