New Jersey Jewish News
Writer rattles suburbia in a gossipy new novel
"McMansions. The very word is enough to raise hackles, as developers tear down stately old homes to bring in large new edifices, in some cases squeezing several oversized homes onto one lot.
In Montclair, for example, some neighbors bemoaned the fate of the Marlboro Inn, a 150-year-old landmark, which was razed to make room for Hempstead at Montclair, a development of 10 luxury single-family homes.
Debra Galant, former New Jersey columnist for The New York Times, uses this anti-architectural angst as the basis for Rattled (St. Martins Press), a satirical novel poking not-so-gentle fun at suburban sprawl. The author, whose Baristanet blog is a must-read for gossip hounds in the Montclair-Glen Ridge-Bloomfield area, writes from personal experience about the screwball tensions between new suburbanites and their grandiose houses and the townies who consider them interlopers.
On Monday evening, March 20, Galant will read from and sign copies of Rattled at Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. Galant and her family husband Warren Levinson and children Margot and Noah have been members of the Reform synagogue for more than 10 years.
Rattled, loosely based on one of her Times columns about endangered timber rattlesnakes, centers around one familys struggle to fit into their new development, located in a fictitious NJ town. The mother, a control freak who would be at home on Desperate Housewives, just cant seem to get all her ducks in a row as she, her power attorney husband, and their young son (who has issues) get used to all the changes.
Long-time townies have no fondness for these gatecrashers, and conflicts ensue with often screwball results.
Galant admits Rattled is not exactly a high-brow read. Its not going to compete with The Kite Runner but thats not what I write, she said. I write satire, and satire tends to be full of broadly drawn characters and so some people will say theyre cliches.
She acknowledged that the main character, Heather Peters, is not going to win over any hearts and minds. In chic lit, the character is always sympathetic, and thats one of the differences between satire and chic lit.
One of the really fun things about the book is that someone will say to me, Oh, my God, thats my sister-in-law, or Oh, my God, I know someone like that.
Galant lives in a 110-year-old Victorian farmhouse in Glen Ridge: Your standard-issue, middle-of-the-market, barista-village kind of house, she said. The family before us put aluminum siding on it. Im not happy about that but I think it would cost a whole lot of money to take it off. If I become rich from the book, thats probably the first thing I would fix.
The cache of working for The New York Times is certainly a great credential, Galant said, but holds no guarantees of success or even publication. She estimated she received 15 rejection letters before even finding an agent. And reviews have been mixed, even within the pages of the Sunday Book Review section of The New York Times. But she follows the Hollywood standard for critiques: Any publicity is good publicity, she said, even bad publicity.
Her next project, One God at Most, deals with the moral dilemma of a lapsed Jew whose 12-year-old son decides he wants a bar mitzva once he learns the potential for a big financial score.
When her column, which appeared regularly in the Sunday Times NJ section, was reassigned in 2003, Gallant found herself missing the NJ beat. In an effort to cheer her up, Levinson, a reporter for Associated Press Radio, gave her her own Web site address as a birthday present. DebbieGalant.com eventually begat Baristanet.com, a hyper-local blog of news and gossip.
It just started forming in my mind. It was an interesting idea. The publishing tools of blogging are so cheap and the barriers to entry are nil; it was easy to give it a shot. Baristanet averages 4,000-5,000 visits a day.
She compared her site to the Montclair Water Cooler, a Web community member group hosted by Yahoo. Theyre very strict about what you can say. Were the wild, wild west compared to them. We were really going after the Wonkette/Gawker crowd and bringing it home to a local community, she said, referring to gossip sites popular in New York and Washington, DC. People really liked that they could get that kind of New York sophistication in what was basically an on-line hometown newspaper.
Galant is clearly no fan of such real estate projects as the one on the Marlboro Inn site. Comments on her blog overwhelmingly oppose the Hempstead development.
Its too many houses into too small a space, and I think it was greed, Gallant said. Aesthetically, Im not thrilled about McMansions, but the book is more concerned about suburban sprawl, the houses in the countryside, and the farmland that were losing. I think of the Marlboro Inn as a beautiful green corner of Montclair, a place that was a nice, restful thing to look at while you were waiting for the traffic light.
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