Book Review: Visible City by Tova Mirvis
In Visible City, people hidden away inside their own little worlds slowly emerge and find connection. On New York’s Upper West Side, thousands of people go about their lives, passing each other on streets and in cafes, yet never really seeing or being seen.
Nina is a stay at home mother with two young children, having given up a law career in order to embrace full-time motherhood. Yet she finds herself at loose ends, and has taken to gazing at the windows of the building across the street, watching the lives of other people and imaging what their stories might be. She’s particularly fascinated by a couple in their fifties, who spend each night side by side on their couch reading books, seemingly enjoying their time alone but together. Nina wonders what their marriage is like, how they’ve reached this level of quiet contentment — until one night, instead of the couple, she sees a younger woman and her lover, who seem both angry and full of passion. What is their connection to the older couple, and how do they fit into the story Nina has composed about the world she watches from her windows?
Bit by bit, we meet the others who circle through Nina’s view: There are Leon and Claudia, the couple from across the street, each experiencing professional challenges while at the same time caring for their daughter Emma, whose return to their home sparks concern and confusion. There’s Emma herself, on the run from her academic dissatisfaction and from the engagement that she may no longer want. There’s Nina’s husband Jeremy, who puts in long hours at his law firm while yearning for excitement and discovery. There’s Wendy, mother of twins, who is so tightly wound and outwardly perfect that she just might explode one of these days.
All these lives and more intersect and collide. Each person is the center of his or her own life, and as each chapter unfolds, we see how the people in the background of one scene have equally compelling stories, passions, and pursuits of their own.
The action is rather minimal, unfolding in small vignettes roughly centered around a new building going up in the neighborhood and its impact on the residents — yet that’s only incidental. Mostly, Visible City is about the people, all of whom seem to have a core of unhappiness in their lives. In a city of millions of people, these characters all have an unfulfilled desire to be known, to be truly seen, to reveal their true natures and break free of the strictures of their seemingly fine lives. No one is happy; each is hiding a secret desire or fear; frustration, loneliness, and alienation seem to rule the universe that these characters inhabit.
I’ll be honest — there was only so far I could bring myself to care about any of this. For the most part, Visible City felt like yet another story of well-off New Yorkers dealing with the type of woes that plague people who don’t really have a lot to worry about: Motherhood is hard. My dissertation doesn’t really interest me any more. Visible City is all about people who have pretty good lives, but are still unhappy. If ever a group of people deserved the hashtag “first world problems” applied to their lives, this one does.
I’ve enjoyed this author’s previous novels, particularly The Ladies Auxiliary, but somehow never felt particularly drawn in or engaged by Visible City. The writing is elegant and thoughtful, but ultimately the subject matter left me cold.
Visible City should appeal to readers who enjoy contemplative novels with a focus on internal reflection. For those who prefer their reads more plot- or action-driven (and apparently, I fall into this category), this probably isn’t the book for you.
Title: Visible City
Author: Tova Mirvis
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: March 18, 2014
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary
Source: Review copy courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt via Netgalley