Class Lucinda Rosenfeld (2017)
Karen Kipple is a contemporary Brooklynite in her mid-forties, with a listless husband, a third-grader named Ruby, and a job at a nonprofit that feeds hungry children. This setup could be boring, but novelist Lucinda Rosenfeld tracks the story toward the absurd with biting satire and probing questions about progressive politics.
Karen obsesses about everything, measuring her actions, and those of others, against a standard that’s impossible to achieve. For example, she worries about the junk food that Ruby’s classmates eat, but then she overanalyzes: “Along with weight, teeth, and marriage, food had somehow become a dividing line between the social classes, with the Earth Day-esque ideals of the 1960s having acquired snob appeal, and the well-off and well-educated increasingly buying ‘natural’ and ‘fresh’ and casting aspersions on those who didn’t.” (19-20)
So, while Karen gets upset about kids eating junk food, she then internally castigates herself for her classism. And, despite the title of this novel, race looms large in Karen’s obsessions also. The African American kids in Ruby’s school have names that irritate Karen, until she realizes that the purposely antiquated names of the white kids (Prudence, Violet, Silas, Leo, and even Ruby) can be seen as pretentious in a different way.
This tug-of-war within Karen plays out over and over. Karen lives much of her life through Ruby, and she worries constantly about every single interaction that the poor child has with other children. “It alarmed and excited her to think that her daughter was only two degrees of separation away from the kind of people who got evicted.” (87) Karen is both alarmed and excited throughout this novel.
The plot in Class mainly revolves around Karen’s decision to pull Ruby out of the local minority-white public school she’s attending and fraudulently enroll her in a nearby all-white public school. Karen doesn’t even tell her husband about her maneuver. And this act of betrayal of her liberal values is one of a series of outrageous exploits, involving preposterous lies, marital infidelity, and embezzlement. As Karen plunges off a metaphorical cliff, readers may want to grab her by her hair and shake her!
The ancillary characters in Class are stereotypes broadly and often humorously drawn: the non-communicative husband who watches television sports, the obnoxious PTA president, the selfish billionaire. In conversations with them, Karen ranges from timid to frank to confrontational. I found this variability unconvincing, but perhaps Karen vacillates verbally as a reflection of her unease with her social convictions.
I’ve reviewed a number of novels set in New York that wavered on the edge of satire; see one of my posts here. There’s no question that Class is a satire, striking at the shibboleths of the left. It will make you squirm as you think about exactly why you hold the beliefs that you do, no matter where on the political spectrum you sit.