Across a Crowded Room, reminiscent of “The Price of Salt” by Patricia Highsmith, opens just before Christmas 1950 in New Canaan, Connecticut. Towards year’s end, Bennie Grant leaves an unhappy marriage for an unknown future. All she knows is that she can no longer be the society housewife her husband Will and his domineering mother, Olivia, want her to be. When the couple met during the heady rush of World War II, becoming engaged and married within a whirlwind span of a few months, Bennie hadn’t fully grasped her personal identity and needs.
The trajectory of Bennie’s journey symbolically marches through a harsh New England winter towards the liberating warmth and new growth of summer. Fall-out from her confession of a short-lived affair with her best friend Alice, which occurs before the novel begins, sets events in motion. Bennie soon takes on a short-term position at her alma mater as the drama teacher, while she works out divorce details and custody of their daughter, Livie. It seems like the perfect place to hole up, until she meets the school’s new board member, Laura Clayborn. They develop an easy rapport that plays out in carefully planned situations. Misunderstandings arise, however, and thrust Bennie still further out into unknown territory. As Bennie struggles to find her footing, she discovers queer community and possibilities in unlooked for places. Alden’s exploration of the duality of queer life at this time introduces both challenges and hopeful prospects.
Alden also ably depicts constrained freedoms and continued societal and legal restrictions facing women in this era. Bennie is an especially bold character, given the high stakes involving her daughter. One of the driving questions for Bennie is the impact of her decisions on her young daughter’s development and worldview. She agonizes over a conundrum familiar to women throughout time: can I be a good mom, and still pursue a career and personal fulfillment? Will and Olivia use the child as a pawn in various situations throughout, culminating in difficult choices for Bennie.
I’ll probably re-read this immersive novel in December, when I can curl up against the cold with my cats and space heater, imagining the holiday decor of my dad’s 1950’s childhood that graced the walls and trees of my own youth. Alden’s weaves in period details, simple as a cup of coffee or turn of phrase, that conjure images of bustling cityscapes, insulated small suburban life, and interconnected theatrical community. Readers keen on historical fiction set in this era will appreciate the author’s authentic voice and tone.