Great Neck, New York: Rosy Retrospection and the Suburbs
by Bettina Mueller-Tuescher, Curious Content Team
It’s abundantly clear that Great Neck, New York plays a significant role in the character Oscar’s psyche and development throughout The Luckiest People. This can partially be attributed to his sense of nostalgia: Oscar longs for the past with rosy retrospection, while his life instead continues to lurch forward largely against his will. Unbeknownst to him, Oscar suddenly finds himself a widower, living in an assisted living complex in California with a deep sense of resentment stemming largely out of his own failing health. As the patriarch of his family, it’s especially painful for him to have lost all semblance of autonomy and familiarity in his life. Oscar’s grief, fear, and discomfort are funneled into bitterness, and he sees the moment at which he left Great Neck as the point of no return, where everything began to decline. From praising the beef slicing techniques in Great Neck to lamenting the fact that Richard sold their old house and forced him to move across the country, Great Neck is a symbol of comfort and happier times for Oscar.
So, apart from the emotional and mental connections, what factors tie Oscar to his past life? What is Great Neck like, anyway? In some ways, it epitomizes the classic American suburb, built to accommodate affluent communities within commuting distance from more densely populated urban areas.* Great Neck lies under an hour’s drive outside of Manhattan; its highest employment industry is healthcare; and according to the 2013 census, the median household income is $90,181 (for context, Manhattan’s median household income is $66,739 and the Denver metro area’s is $62,760).
But, while Great Neck encompasses many of the characteristics we generally attribute to suburbs, there are also some important differentiations. The peninsula of Great Neck was first settled by Native Americans in the 1600s. Living at the coast, they established trading relationships with English and Dutch explorers who found their way to the East coast. The area was eventually colonized by European immigrants, bringing West African slaves with them to cultivate the land for crops. Unlike many modern suburbs, hastily built out of necessity for growing populations in and around cities, Great Neck developed alongside its surrounding urban areas and simultaneously has its own history. There are no identical row houses; no modern housing developments devoid of character.
Having lived in a place like Great Neck, can come as no surprise that Oscar is completely uprooted and resistant after losing his wife and being left alone in the sterilized, artificial environment of an assisted living complex. Although his children still have memories of Great Neck, Oscar is left to face the reality that his life is moving farther and farther away from what is familiar to him. Surly he never pictured himself growing old this way – a widower alone in an unfamiliar city across the country; his adult children completely consumed by their own lives and problems. For Oscar, the memory of Great Neck is a relic of a much happier past; one where he felt in control of his life before things began to spiral out of his grasp.
*While we usually perceive suburbs to be a relatively modern development in American residential planning, the concept of the suburb isn’t a new one by any means. Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE – 43 BCE) is believed to be the first to utilize the term “suburbani,” referencing large villas built by wealthy patricians outside of Roman market towns.