Tova Mirvis’ New York Novel

A sense of place — the Upper West Side, that is — runs through ‘Visible City.’

03/18/2014
Culture Editor
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Tova Mirvis’ new novel is full of Manhattan moments — when you learn that your neighbor is your best friend’s therapist, or that you can’t help but eavesdrop on a conversation behind you about people you know. It may be a combination of coincidence and close quarters, but lives in this city seem to overlap and intersect repeatedly.

Born in Memphis, Mirvis has the soul of a Southerner, and now, the life of a New Englander with a home in the suburbs of Boston. But she believes that Manhattan’s Upper West Side is really central to who she is. Every time she returns to Manhattan, where she lived for many years in college and the early years of her marriage, she feels most alive.

“When I get out of the train on the Upper West Side, I always have the feeling that this is where I really am meant to be,” she tells The Jewish Week.

Mirvis has that Southern sense that place matters, and “Visible City” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), her new novel, masterfully renders life along upper Broadway and Riverside Park, and inside cafés, pre-war buildings, apartment windows, subways, Central Park and parked cars. She conveys both what is seen and what is just underneath the façade.

In conversation, Mirvis speaks of the “anonymous intimacy” of New York City, when apartment dwellers can look across the way right into other people’s windows and peer into their lives, yet remain strangers on the sidewalks below. The novel opens with the image of a lone woman in the window of an apartment house, pressed against the glass, as though she wants to be seen. And indeed she is noticed by Nina, a young mother, who left her career as a lawyer to care for her children, and who spends many hours looking into that very window while her husband is working late at his law firm. Usually, she sees a middle-aged couple sitting on the couch in silence, but she once caught them in the twirl of a dance. 

“At nine in the evening the windows across the street were like the rows of televisions in an electronics store, all visible at once,” Mirvis writes. As for Nina’s own windows, she never got around to getting shades, and is convinced that no one, in turn, is watching her.

The well-crafted story reveals a tangle of connections between three couples, with all of the characters coming to question choices they’ve made, and realizing how little they know about the people who are thought to be closest to them. Mirvis writes tenderly of love and loneliness, chance encounters and tough decisions. She captures the competitive edge of mothers so devoted to their kids’ enrichment and, also, their own buried feelings of desperation.  With humor, she gets the details right, about shushing between parents and those who prefer quiet in public spaces, and how, as mothers try out the newest theories of parenting, it’s really the kids who are in charge.

“So much of my desire to write fiction stems from an urge to see into other people’s experiences,” she says. Her characters imagine the lives of others, but often don’t see beyond the surface. And looking at others proves to be a way to avoid looking truthfully within.

Nina’s husband the lawyer becomes very interested in the architecture of the city, particularly its hidden treasures. In one scene, he secretly travels to an abandoned subway station, and finds vaulted ceilings and beautiful historic tile, and in that space has the closest thing to a religious epiphany he’s ever had. Mirvis explains that these buried underground spaces become a metaphor in the novel for how, above ground, people also have their own closed-off spaces that are rarely seen by others.

Mirvis plays with light and shadow throughout. Claudia, the former stranger across the street, is a professor whose specialty is stained glass. The windows she loves reflect light and color “as in a continual state of creation,” depending on the time of day. For their full beauty to be evident, stained glass windows need sufficient light cast upon them. In the course of the story, an unknown stained glass window, of New York historical import, is rediscovered.

In Mirvis’ previous novels, “The Ladies Auxiliary” and “The Outside World,” her characters were grappling with issues of Jewish identity, faith, doubt and community. In “Visible City,” one character has left the Orthodoxy of his childhood, but there’s little discussion of religious matters. Yet, this band of Upper West Side therapists, lawyers, academic and activists seems unmistakably Jewish.

“Questions of Jewish belief are not so central to this novel,” Mirvis explains. “But it’s still my Jewish eyes looking out.”

When she was writing her earlier books, she identified as Orthodox, something she no longer does. She remains very involved in the Boston Jewish community and feels connected to the wider Jewish community — and says that she doesn’t have a name yet for her identity.

“Visible City” took about 10 years to complete, much longer than she anticipated. She began writing in the first months that she moved from the Upper West Side to the Boston area, in part out of homesickness for the city, especially the street life. Over those ten years, the mother of three says that she went through a lot in her life, including the breakup of her marriage, and with the novel, “getting lost, getting found.”

“What took so long was really getting inside of the characters,” she says, “so that I could feel sympathetic to all of them. It takes years, like getting to know people. I had to let them go in a certain way, to be who they were going to be. In an earlier draft, I was holding them back.”

When asked whether the novel is autobiographical in any way, she says that while she resembles the young mother biographically, she likes to have her identity sprinkled among several of the characters. There’s also a piece of her in the professor who’s always trying to finish her book.

“I identify with all of them,” she says.

“These last few years have been a time of pain and growth and transformation. My own experience, of grappling with painfulness, made its way into the book. I was trying to articulate what I felt like in those moments and how change is terrifying,” she says. “Everything bleeds into a novel when you are working on it. It’s not the story of my marriage, but a sense of the pain spills over.”

Even before she began this novel, she thought about writing a Southern Jewish family novel, spanning several generations. A sixth-generation Memphian, she’s particularly interested in how stories are passed from one generation to the next. Eventually, she hopes to return to that project, but may write something else first.

Lately, she has also been writing non-fiction essays, including a recent piece about her divorce in The New York Times. She writes to make sense of things, but finds writing non-fiction can be nerve-wracking.

“The freedom of fiction is thrilling. You tell the story you want to tell.”

Tova Mirvis will be reading from “Visible City” on Monday, March 24 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 2289 Broadway (82nd St.), Manhattan and on Monday, March 31at 7:30 p.m. at Greenlight Bookstores, along with Lana Vapnyar, 686 Fulton St., Brooklyn.

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