A Jew’s Love Letter to the Upper West Side

April 19, 2014 | ,

“Visible City,” by Tova Mirvis
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 256 pages, $24

Tova Mirvis is hardly the first Jewish writer to pine, in exile, for a land that she’s left. Still, there’s something fetching, even touching, about the wistfulness of a Jew relocated to Boston, longing for the Upper West Side – which is what inspired Mirvis’ new novel (her third), “Visible City.”

The Upper West Side of New York City, one hardly needs to add – that swath between Columbus Circle and Columbia University – is a territory almost without equal as a mythic site of contemporary Jewish experience. The neighborhood and its associated sensibility attained immortality in the establishing shots of Tom’s Restaurant in “Seinfeld,” and for most of us, it doesn’t need an introduction.

Mirvis is especially attuned to the place, perhaps, because she arrived there, from the South, as an adult. In her debut novel, the bestselling “The Ladies Auxiliary” (1999), she understood that to explain Memphis, her hometown, and the dynamics of its Jewish community, she needed a new arrival, a Yankee immigrant, as her focal point. The rapport between the outsider’s gaze and inside perspective also motivated her follow-up, “The Outside World” (2004), which has become a touchstone in debates about the representation of Orthodox Jews in contemporary American culture.

So, “Visible City” is a love letter to the Upper West Side, but just as in Mirvis’ treatments of Memphis and of Orthodoxy, it attends carefully to the tensions and pressures at work in this milieu.

The novel centers on two couples who occupy apartments facing one another across 102nd Street. Nina, a young mother who never returned to her law firm after her second maternity leave, spies on a man and his wife and adult daughter, in the window “one down and two across.” Such voyeurism will more likely be familiar, in our time, not from Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” but from the 1990s sitcom begat by “Seinfeld,” “Friends,” in which the protagonists’ ability to peer into the uncurtained apartment of “Ugly Naked Guy” was the single realistic feature of an impossibly luxurious New York apartment.

Nina watches differently, though, not to laugh or to grimace. The impulse that drives her to spy on her neighbors is curiosity; she hopes to understand the people who share this slice of the city with her, to know them intimately. “She waited to see everyone’s inner thoughts transmitted in flashes of light long and short,” we’re told, “For neighbors everywhere to strip down, lay themselves bare.”

This is, of course, exactly what readers want when they open up a novel in the realist-fiction genre that Mirvis writes in. And that’s what we get over the course of the novel: We are granted access to Nina’s thoughts and private desires, and to those of her husband, and the couple across the street – an art historian and therapist – and their daughter, Emma, a grad student engaged to a writer.

These lives intertwine quickly and forcefully: The characters bump into one another, form haphazard relationships, begin to see one another as necessary. Emma babysits for Nina’s kids; Nina’s husband reads the art historian’s essay about John LaFarge, a real-life American artist known for his stained glass; they meet up in a café specializing, inevitably – this is the Upper West Side, remember – in stylish cupcakes. Because they are characters in a novel, and maybe also because they are Upper West Siders, these people all harbor vague dissatisfactions, and seek semi-consciously for ways to ameliorate their situations. As they do, the network of surveillance widens, and becomes more complicated, with Nina both watching and being watched.

The “Visible City” plot relies on serial coincidences that would strain plausibility, except that one feature of life in New York is the regularity of improbable serendipities. Both the prose and the characters’ psychologies remain stylized, expository, throughout, occasionally flirting with cliché; this marks the book’s positioning toward the commercial end of commercial-literary fiction. This could be either cause or effect of Mirvis’ novels selling in quantities that would make many literary writers turn green.

At its sharpest, the novel nails the atmosphere and street-level details of Upper West Side life, reproducing the language and customs of child rearing in our time. Mothers, packing up at a café, discuss “in loud, narrating voices that their next stop was Gymboree”; Nina reluctantly admits that one has no choice, these days, but “to attach yourself to a particular parenting ideology.” As a toddler’s parent, I shuddered every time one of Mirvis’ mommies spoke to their children in words I’ve uttered myself.

The novel’s plot focuses on the unearthing of hidden city histories, particularly art-historical ones; there’s a lost LaFarge window that may or may not scupper a developer’s plan to erect a new condo building. Notably, though, given Mirvis’ previous work, and her unselfconsciousness about calling herself a “Jewish writer,” there’s almost no overt discussion of Jewishness in the book. At a reading a few weeks ago on the Lower East Side, Mirvis remarked that the book features a therapist, an academic and a lawyer on the Upper West Side – she didn’t feel it was necessary to state their ethnicity specifically.

Only one character’s Jewishness is made explicit. Jeremy, Nina’s husband, works punishing hours at a corporate law firm, for reasons he cannot quite remember. Raised Orthodox, he is “no longer observant,” but Mirvis suggests that his childhood faith has lingering effects: “For months after he’d stopped wearing a yarmulke, he had expected to put his hand to his head and feel the small crocheted circle there.” Even more than this physical sensation, though, there’s a suggestion that giving up his faith has unmoored him and may have contributed to his marriage’s aimlessness, too.

Readers of the novel will likely wonder to what degree Jeremy’s story – and indeed all the novel’s stories of unhappy people in failing relationships – relate to Mirvis’ own experiences; she published an op-ed in The New York Times in February that linked her own estrangement from Orthodoxy and her recent divorce. One hopes, though, that such speculation won’t devolve into lurid fascination with the writer’s life: Mirvis is a novelist, and while it’s inevitable that she drew details for her characters’ experiences from her own, the interesting part, to my mind, isn’t what happened to her (let her friends and family worry about that), but what she has invented.

Here’s the question the novel raises for us, its readers. In the novel’s opening pages, Nina’s tendency to voyeurism resembles readers’ desires to see characters stripped bare, and it becomes clear over the course of the book that her curiosity about others’ lives derives from profound unhappiness about her own choices. The novel’s characters pursue aesthetic pleasure – in a beautiful window, a scholarly discovery, a cupcake – always at the expense of their relationships. Should we, can we, accept the book’s implication, that art poses a threat to fulfilling relationships, and that the reason we readers might be drawn to realist fiction like this is to escape the unsatisfying elements of our own lives?

Mirvis, again, is hardly the first author to pose such a question. But doing so in the idiom of very popular commercial fiction has a subversiveness that’s, in and of itself, both provocative and appealing.

[Originally published in Haaretz.]