The Madonnas Of President Street
There are several formulas in life for crazy-making: having all of the responsibility, but none of the power; placing one’s fate in others’ untrustworthy hands, reacting instead of acting. These states may sound especially familiar to women raised in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. Vivian Viola, the very believable narrator of The Madonnas of President Street, is grappling with all of them.
That Vivian is having trouble staying sane will come as no surprise to the legions of women raised in the Tao of the good girl. What may surprise readers is that this relatable protagonist was written by a man, New York journalist John Sandman who, in his day job, covers topics from AIDS to Z-bonds. In Vivian, Sandman has created a woman all women will recognize, perhaps even from looking in the mirror.
Single mom Vivian and teen daughter Melanie make their entrance in 1984 during a move from a much loved apartment to a Brooklyn neighborhood, which “brought back memories so stuffed with conflict, they could barely breathe.” It’s the neighborhood where Vivian lived with her in-laws after her Vietnam veteran husband Sal deserted her. Ceramic Madonnas line the stoops and Vivian badly wants them to portend comfort and certainty. Instead, they come to represent a world of inflexible expectations and suffocating encounters. After a failed business venture, Vivian, to her mind, is all out of options. “You take what you can get and I took it” is how she sees it. So begins a harrowing journey, triggered mostly by Vivian’s delusions of impotence.
Isn’t it criminal how so many girls are raised to doubt their grandeur? This is a point Sandman makes again and again. The move to President Street is downright Tarantino-esque. As the landlady, Mrs. Rotoli, harangues Vivian about her unmarried state, the movers attack Melanie upstairs. Vivian arrives in time to thwart the rape. “For the first time in months, I knew just where I stood and what to do.” But don’t cheer yet, because Vivian also refuses to report the crime so that she can stay on whatever part of Mrs. Rotoli’s good side she still occupies. After all, Mrs. Rotoli wouldn’t like the police storming up her walkway, and who would really believe the rape story anyway?
Of course, as so many women know, this way lies madness, or at the very least, intense, bone-piercing frustration—and this is not a good time for it. Vivian and Melanie are in one of those difficult times in life where changes come at you like an F-15 in a war zone. Melanie is about to start at Smith College, or enlist in the army like her dad (she’s still deciding), and she would like her mom to hook up with a man to be less alone. Vivian is under intense financial pressure and struggling to hold on to a job. And surprise, surprise, she tends to date the undatables. That special brand of pandemonium bred by desperation ensues.
Although this is a sadly common story, Sandman tells it most uncommonly. Issues of competition between generations of feminists, between mother and daughter, and between one’s inner good girl and sense of self-preservation are treated deftly and, amazingly, with a wonderful sense of humor. (“Mrs. Rotoli was a cross between Marlon Brando in The Godfather and Ernest Borgnine in McHale’s Navy.”) Vivian is Thelma and Louise put together, both a victim and a perpetrator of violence and chaos. But in the end, she comes out better than you might expect. In fact, she comes out with a wonderful, uplifting play on the words “coming out.” (It’s not what you’re thinking, but reformed good girls will approve.) If at Thelma and Louise’s sad end, you exclaimed, “It doesn’t have to be that way!”, in the end, Vivian proves you right.