Meantime (288 pages; Black Cat/Grove) is an absorbing novel, the second from author Katharine Noel, whose first book, Halfway House, received widespread acclaim. Meantime seems to be on a similar track, as reviewers praise its humor and emotional depth—especially as found in its narrator, Claire Hood. Claire is dry and amusing, and her voice and reactions are engaging and convincing. The main plot points—Claire growing up with her bohemian “Naked Family,” her varied boyfriends and failed relationships, her marriage to Jeremy, and Jeremy’s illness and recovery, et cetera —are all fascinating; the characters and their dialogues drive the novel. There is not one character, however small, that doesn’t seem fully realized. (Claire’s judgments about them notwithstanding). And none is entirely despicable or lovable, but all are undeniably real.
But what sets Meantime apart is how Noel’s beautiful prose renders contemporary San Francisco. Her San Francisco is not some overblown mythical city promising rebirth or “finding yourself,” and it certainly isn’t overly romanticized, either. The San Francisco of the novel, from its descriptions of the views of the Bay or the litter and garbage lining the streets, are recognizable to anybody familiar with the city (thankfully, the novel has no references to the Golden Gate Bridge or fog). Noel’s San Francisco is the same San Francisco that I myself am familiar with, one that has been facing rapid gentrification and staggering income inequality—that in recent years seems like it’s been dialed up to 11.
Meantime makes subtle acknowledgements of San Francisco’s pressing social and economic problems, even as Claire remains sheltered from them as she navigates her relationship with Jeremy, and as the story moves between Claire’s childhood and her present home in the Mission District. One scene, for example, describes two sides of Bartlett Street, “the street that divided the gentrified and less-gentrified parts of the Mission,” and relates the starker differences between Mission and Valencia streets. In a seemingly random aside, we learn how a “sprawling Latino family” across the street from Claire and Jeremy has been “Ellis Acted” out of their home and been replaced with a white couple and their newborn. And when Claire’s sister, who’s searching for an apartment in which to raise her baby, accuses a landlord of advertising an illegal bedroom (a walk-in closet), Noel wryly notes that the landlord would “find plenty of people happy to pay twenty-four hundred to live in trendy Hayes Valley.” The resigned, matter-of-fact presentation of what people are “going through” to find and to keep a home in San Francisco make the novel, in some ways, a realistic one of how both whiteness and middle-class status protect some San Franciscans (long-time, native, or otherwise) from those hardships. In fact, it’s Meantime’s class-consciousness that makes the novel an interesting read. Class informs and guides Claire’s understanding of the people around her, as she resents Jeremy for being rich enough to go skiing in Tahoe, but not rich enough to go skiing in Aspen. Claire is also initially bored and irritated by Gita (Jeremy’s high school sweetheart) until she learns that Gita comes from a low-income immigrant family (a social class that Claire, interestingly, does not share) that ran a convenience store in Nob Hill.
For that reason, you couldn’t call Meantime an apolitical novel, even if it isn’t calling for the proletariat to seize any means of production or guiding the reader through the extremely adverse consequences of redlining. What Meantime does is bring snippets of inequality to the surface without naming them as such—which, depending on what you would like in a novel about San Francisco, can be a good or a bad thing. Sure, Meantime can be merely read as an entertaining tale about a woman making sense of her life as the rules and expectations shift quickly and quietly around her. Watching relationships deteriorate and strengthen across the novel is enjoyable, and Noel’s wry descriptions of bourgeois San Franciscans made me chuckle on my morning BART commutes. But what makes the novel more than mildly fascinating is how Noel presents the life of a woman whose world has been upended against the backdrop of a San Francisco for which the same can be said.