Tag Archives: New York

Places I Stopped on the Way Home by Meg Fee: Growing pains in New York

Cover imageThe slightly gushy letter that prefaces Meg Fee’s book of essays (at least in my proof copy) made me wonder if it would be for me but its premise – a young woman finding her way in New York City, always a lure – made me press on. Fee’s short pieces cover thirteen years, a collection of raw yet beautifully crafted snapshots of her painful coming-of-age in the city she had dreamed of inhabiting, growing up in Texas.

Fee wins a place to study drama at Julliard, taking it up despite her parents’ quiet reservations. The seductive dream of New York City took root long ago in Fee’s psyche but fulfilling it proves harder than an idealistic eighteen-year-old could have imagined. After ending a brief acting career, she finds herself drifting, following the all-too-predictable route of waiting at tables and menial dead ends in a post-crash economy. She falls in love with an unattainable man setting the template for a string of relationships which never seem quite right. Female friendship is hard to come by, as are decent places to live. Thinking to combine the two, she finds herself trapped in a bedbug infested basement with a roommate who not only refuses to accept the reality of her misery but who turns nasty with it. Throughout it all Fee struggles with an eating disorder, depression and grinding loneliness, eventually renting a room in a Harlem house and finding real friendship. By the end of this short book, Fee has decided it’s time to say goodbye to her New York dream after thirteen years of struggling to fulfil it.

All that may sound like your average everyday misery memoir, not my cup of tea at all, but Fee’s eloquence steers her book well clear of trite self-indulgence evoking empathy in her readers as she lays bare her heart in words that makes you flinch waiting for the next blow:

Hunger seems preferable to sadness, and so I cling to it

A returned coffee lid, an extra set of hands. A lifetime of not always having to ask. Occasionally I am rendered breathless by how much there is to look forward to.

Fee punctuates her vignettes with brief descriptions of what home would mean to her, becoming increasingly less ambitious as time wears on until she realises that home lies within herself. Perhaps not the most characteristic read for me but one that touched me far more than I had expected.

Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: Revisiting the Calloways

Cover imageIf you’re a fan of Jay McInerney’s series of novels which began with Brightness Falls way back in 1992, you won’t need to be told who the Calloways are nor will you need to have explained to you why I was thrilled at the prospect of a new one despite my disappointment with The Good Life which picked up Russell and Corrine’s story around the time of 9/11. This one begins in 2006 with an America blissfully unaware of the financial calamity which will be visited upon it and the rest of the world two years later. Russell has found himself a backer and has set up a small independent publishing house while Corrine has turned her back on the corporate world and works for a charity, feeding the city’s poor.

The Calloways are close to twenty-five years into their marriage: still living in the loft that satisfies Russell’s lingering bohemian yearnings but now with eleven-year-old twins conceived as a result of Corrine’s sister’s egg donation. The golden couple of Brightness Falls has endured, buffeted a little by financial constraints, work disappointments and the odd dalliance by Russell not to mention Corrine’s (undisclosed) affair. They move in rarefied circles – gallery openings here, launch parties there, charity benefits more than a weekly event. Corrine would much prefer to curl up with a good book but Russell relishes the social whirl and has developed an almost fetishistic relationship with food, its provenance and quality. Corrine, like so many of her circle has the opposite problem, avoiding anything with a hint of calorific value whenever she can. Summers are taken up with visits to the Hamptons where their annual party is happily anticipated by the rich and famous as well as old college friends. Like many couple in their fifties, things are a little stale but they are still the kind of couple whose split would shock even the most hardened socialite. Over the two years that  the novel covers a bright shooting literary star appears on Russell’s horizon; he falls for the kind of proposal the rest of us would have avoided like the plague; Corrine becomes re-acquainted and re-entangled with Luke, her fellow soup kitchen volunteer from The Good Life; parties are attended; revelations are made and rows are had. Meanwhile, America’s first African-American president campaigns for election and the world’s worst economic crisis since the Depression brews.

For me, Bright, Precious Days – although far from being without fault – is a much better book than The Good Life which felt like something of an obligatory response to 9/11. McInerney brings us up to date with the Calloways, reminding those of us who need reminding of their and their friends’ history and sketching in the background for readers new to their lives, all smoothly done. Names are dropped, the rich and famous are pilloried although far too gently for my taste but this is McInerney’s world. Russell and Corrine keep their feet firmly planted in the Art and Love camp, as Russell dubs it, rather than Money and Power with which they lightly rub shoulders. There a nice vein of humour running through the novel: ‘especially unwelcome in this Irish community were the hipsters, scruffy chic invaders from the East Village and Williamsburg attracted by the working-class authenticity their presence was diluting’; ‘Tom had pulled himself up by his grandfather’s suspenders’ offers a sample of the lightly aimed barbs. Not one for readers wanting a glimpse of the gritty, dark underbelly of New York or scathing social satire but certainly engaging and involving enough to suit those wondering how the Calloways are getting along. I’d like to think that there’ll be another instalment but let’s hope it‘s not about Russell and Corrine struggling to cope under President Trump.

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler: Dangerous liasons in the kitchen

Cover imageSweetbitter is one of those books that turned out to be very much better than I expected. Its blurb reminded me a little of Merrit Tierce’s viscerally intense, short, sharp Love Me Back with its restaurant backdrop,  the location changed from Texas to New York. I knew I’d probably read it but Tierce’s book had so impressed me that I expected Stephane Danler’s debut to fall short, going as far as to describe it as ‘fluff’ in my June preview. That’ll teach me to judge before reading. It follows twenty-two-year-old Tess who turns her back on smalltown Ohio and talks her way into working at a top New York restaurant.

In late June 2006 Tess drives to New York, finds herself a place to live in a ratty Williamsburg apartment and heads off to what her roommate calls the best restaurant in New York, determined to work there. She’s interviewed, somewhat eccentrically, by the general manager and is convinced she’s failed to get the job but Howard spots a ‘fifty-one percenter’, someone prepared to dedicate herself to the constant demands of the restaurant. Tess begins her training, subjected to endless snipey backchat, shouted at, given the dirtiest jobs and expected to know everything without being told. As she proves her mettle, she’s pulled into after-work trips to the Park Bar,  joining in the excesses, sometimes a little too enthusiastically. Eventually she gains the attention of Simone, so accomplished with guests that her tips are a steady twenty-seven per cent. Tess is entranced, thrilled to be singled out and inducted into Simone’s esoteric knowledge and expertise. She also has her eye on Jake, aloof and well-known for his promiscuity. Tess is drawn further and further into the orbit of these two who are, it seems, more than close.

Danler has a keen eye for characterisation. Tess’s gaucheness, occasional flashes of brash confidence and her aching obsessive yearning for both Jake and Simone’s attention are sharply drawn. There’s a touch of Les Liaisons Dangereuses about these two, both magnetic but damaged personalities locked into a deeply dysfunctional relationship in which Tess becomes entangled. Small, subtle touches mark the passage of her year – she becomes ‘Tess’ when she passes her training, no longer the generic ‘new girl. Danler writes beautifully about food and delivers some neatly turned out phrases: Jake takes Tess on ‘a rough pantomime of a date’; staff are ‘fluent in rich people’. The sheer hard physicality of restaurant work coupled with maintaining the appearance of polished urbanity despite the controlled chaos of a working kitchen behind the scenes is vividly conveyed. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her. Sweetbitter comes complete with a paean of praise from Mr Bright Lights, Big City himself, Jay McInerney, and more than lives up to it. In other words, not fluffy at all…

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: Families and how to survive them

Cover imageCynthia D’Arprix Sweeney’s debut is one of those novels that lots of people have been jumping up and down about, eagerly anticipating its publication: I’ve been one of them. Usually that kind of thing makes me put on my sceptical hat but with the promise of a dysfunctional family – a favourite literary trope which may say a lot about families – a New York backdrop and some well-aimed barbs at the better-off it sounded right up my alley and I’m delighted to say it delivers. The Plumbs, who’ve been counting on a windfall from the fund their father set up for them many years ago, are everything you could wish for in the dysfunctional stakes.

Leonard Plumb’s family frittered away what fortune they had. A proud self-made man, he decided that his own children would suffer neither his fate nor indulge in his family’s profligacy, setting up a modest fund nicknamed the Nest, which will pay out on his youngest child’s fortieth birthday. It’s supposed to be a top-up, a little something to draw on in middle age, but the growth of the fund has far exceeded Leonard’s wildest dreams. It has become exactly what he didn’t want for his children: a source of expectation. What Jack, Bea and Melody have not counted on is the plundering of their treasured Nest by their mother to get their eldest brother Leo out of trouble. Drunk and coked-up, Leo has crashed head on with an SUV while in compromising circumstances with a waitress, his mind taken off the road somewhat. Three months after the event, the three aggrieved siblings have arranged to meet Leo, fresh out of rehab. All are financially compromised: Jack’s taken out a loan against the summer-house he shares with his partner to shore up his failing antiques shop; Bea’s writing career has stalled and her advance is all but spent; Melody’s concern for appearances has landed her with a massive mortgage and college fees for her sixteen-year-old twins are looming on the horizon. Leo is late, as ever, but when he arrives he assures them he will repay the money. Sweeney’s novel follows these four over the three months until Melody’s fortieth, the longed for payout day.

The strength of The Nest lies in Sweeney’s characterisation. She introduces us to the Plumbs with a set-piece meeting, filling in their background as each prepares with a drink in a bar they know none of the others frequents. The story unfolds from the point of view of each member of the family, rounding them out nicely. Sweeney smartly avoids caricature, underpinning her novel with a gentle humour which makes it all the more engaging: these aren’t bad people, just a little too greedy for their own – and others’ – good. The novel is polished off with a thoroughly satisfying epilogue, neatly tying up any loose ends. It’s not challenging – no literary fireworks, nothing revolutionary – just a well-turned out, entertaining and absorbing piece of fiction that will keep you interested for all of its 400+ pages while quietly delivering a serious message about money and expectations. More please!

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

Cover imageI was attracted to Olivia Laing’s new book partly because of its setting – that old New York lure – partly because I’d enjoyed her exploration of the relationship between writers and drink, The Trip to Echo Spring. In The Lonely City she explores loneliness through the work of four artists – Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz, Andy Warhol and Henry Darger – prompted by her own descent into chronic loneliness after a love affair collapsed leaving her untethered.

Laing applies the same forensic research skills to her artists as she did to the four writers in The Trip to Echo Spring, drawing on diaries, memoirs, letters, videos and the artists’ works. Anyone who has ever seen a reproduction of Nighthawks will understand why she chose Hopper as one of her subjects. Warhol may seem a less likely choice given the incessant party that seemed to surround him but, as she persuasively argues, that was a symptom of his loneliness. Both David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger were new to me although when I googled him I was struck by the familiarity of an image of Wojnarowicz, lips stitched together as part of his work as an AIDS activist. You may recognise the svelte young man shot at various New York locations wearing a Rimbaud mask which seems to be his best known work. Darger’s art seems the most strange with its watercolours depicting children rebelling against their enslavement by adults. Darger spent much of his life as a janitor and was almost certainly mentally ill. His paintings were found by a neighbour just weeks before he died. Woven through her studies of these four are Laing’s own experiences and her exploration of urban loneliness in the modern age.

I remember being struck by Laing’s graceful writing style in The Trip to Echo Spring and The Lonely City is marked by the same elegance of expression – her descriptions of some of the artworks make you want to get on the next plane to see them. That said, this is not an easy book to read: it’s intensely cerebral at times but that’s not the reason. Laing’s own experience of loneliness is raw and painful, and her eloquence makes it all the more so. She unflinchingly articulates the shame loneliness makes us feel, the assumption that only the pathetic are lonely despite statistics which suggest its increase in modern society. Her exploration of loneliness during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and ’90s is particularly affecting – the isolation of both the bereaved and those stigmatised by the ignorance of others, starved of touch or company, is heartrending. As she points out her observations on our love affair with connectedness via the internet and its effects on our increasing physical alienation may not be original but they’re no less persuasive for all that and her exploration of its history is fascinating, if hair-raising, with its descriptions of internet entrepreneur Josh Harris‘s willingness to put every aspect of his relationship online. Laing concludes her study with the observation that ‘loneliness, longing, does not mean that one has failed, but simply that one is alive’ – comforting words for those who need it and wise ones, too.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for Laing’s book you might like to read an extract and the feature it prompted in the Observer a week or so ago.

A Fortunate Age: A enjoyable literary soap opera

Cover imageI thoroughly enjoyed My Salinger Year, Joanna Rakoff’s memoir of her time as a literary agent’s assistant, and was pleased to hear that her novel was to be published in the UK. It’s been available in the States for a few years although its reception seems to have been somewhat mixed. I’d also heard that it was a tribute to Mary McCarthy’s celebrated 1963 book The Group which still sits on my bookshelves after several readings. I’ve long been a sucker for novels that take a group of young people – friends since college – and follow them over the next five or ten years of their lives, a liking which may well have been triggered by McCarthy’s novel. Her all-woman group met at Vasser while Rakoff’s six-strong mixed band get together at Oberlin, her own alma mater.

It begins in 1998 with a wedding. Lil is marrying Tuck, who no one in the group is quite sure about. Lil and Tuck met at Rochester both studying for their doctorates but Tuck has dropped out and Lil has secured a teaching position intending to continue with her thesis in New York. On the strength of Tuck’s job with one of the new attention-grabbing magazines, they’ve set themselves up in a loft in rundown Williamsburg, the first of many gentrifiers to come. All six friends aspire to work in the arts or academia – Emily looks set for acting success on Broadway, Sadie works for a literary agent in the city, Beth is working on a doctorate in newly minted cultural studies, Dave is determined to become a musician and Tal is resisting parental pressure to go to law school convinced he’ll make it into the movies. Rakoff’s novel follows her group through marriages, children, affairs, career ups and downs, dot-com boom and bust, and calamitous world events, from the late ‘90s to 2004 when they are brought together, once again, by another rite of passage.

There’s a lovely quote from Daniel Deronda prefacing the novel which sums up youthful expectations beautifully: ‘What she was clear upon was, that she did not wish to lead the sort of life as ordinary young ladies did; but what she was not clear upon, how she should set about leading any other…’ This sets you up nicely for what follows in Rakoff’s book. It’s something of a doorstep – just tipping the 500-page plus balance – described rather disarmingly as ‘sprawling’ by the publishers and it has to be said that it could do with a trim. There’s a good deal of angsty introspection which made me a little impatient at times but Rakoff’s characters were sufficiently engaging to carry me along with them as they negotiate that tricky period between supposed adulthood and the actuality. The realisation that work may not be utterly fulfilling, that passion only takes a relationship so far, that money has to be made, that much of early parenthood is sheer hard grind – all of this is well handled with wit and humour. Rakoff’’s women characters are better rounded than her men – she seems to give up on Tal entirely who only pops into view now and again, mentioned in group catch-ups then appearing in the final pages. Not an unalloyed joy, then, but much better than my scanning of American reviews suggested. Perhaps the best measure is to ask whether I would want to catch up with Rakoff’s characters should she write a sequel and the answer would be yes but, please, keep it shorter next time.

The Sunlit Night: An endearing bit of eccentricity

The Sunlit NightI’m a sucker for anything Scandi these days – I blame BBC4 – which is why I was attracted to Rebecca Dinerstein’s idiosyncratic first novel. I wasn’t at all sure about it at first – I thought it might be a little too whimsical and that cover is enough to send me scrabbling for something else to read – but it turned out to be an enjoyable piece of entertainment which steers well clear of sentimentality. Set in New York and on a Norwegian island in the far north on the edge of the Arctic Circle, it’s about Frances and Yasha, brought together in the most unlikely circumstances.

The novel begins with twenty-two-year-old Frances thrown into a quandary by her breakup with the boyfriend she thought she’d be spending the summer with in Japan. Having turned down her place at the Leknes Artists’ Colony, apprenticed to an artist who only paints in yellow, she’s not at all sure that they’ll reconsider her. Luckily, there’s still a vacancy. Relieved to escape her parents’ tiny apartment and their constant carping, she takes herself off to Norway where it soon becomes apparent that the Artists’ Colony is a colony of one. Meanwhile seventeen-year-old Yasha works in his father’s New York bakery where they’ve been since leaving Moscow ten years ago, wishing for a girlfriend and serving the guitar-toting man they’ve christened Dostoevsky every Friday, until his father decides to return to Moscow to look for his wife who failed to join them despite her first-class ticket. These two are clearly destined to meet and so they do, far away from home in a Viking Museum at the ‘top of the world’.

The Sunlit Night is neatly packaged for the holiday reading market but it’s a little more off the wall than your usual run-of-the-mill summer romance. Dinerstein has a nice line in eccentric humour and her characters are endearingly awkward at times. Her descriptions of the Nordic midsummer are strikingly vivid – they made me want to go there although perhaps the enjoyment is best kept vicarious: the prospect of  a day lasting three weeks is enough to make anyone bedeviled by poor sleep break down and weep. Dinerstein chose to spend a year-long writing fellowship in the Lofoten archipelago where her novel is set. Clearly, she has memories of ‘brown cheese’, and I’m not sure they’re good ones: it comes up a lot. Altogether an enjoyable read, then – just the ticket if you’re in the mood for a quirky bit of escapism.