The title and cover intrigued me in this time of staying home during the Covid pandemic. I have no window to press my nose to. I live in a place where houses are spaced far apart, in an area where the virus is now spiking. I’ve been in my house for over one hundred days and am starved for the sight of people engaged in everyday activity (besides dog walking). So you might see why I was drawn to the opening pages of this story:
Through long, solitary evenings Nina gazes in boredom and voyeuristic longing at the building across the street, hoping to see not just the outrageous or the extraordinary, but any truthful moment of small ordinary.
I was intrigued. There was nothing I would like more at this time than to imagine a building across from me where I could watch a mother setting the table for dinner with the bustle of small children around her or a husband coming home from work and wrapping his wife in a big hug… hmmm. Dream on. No people watching in my neighborhood and believe me, I’m no peeper!!!! Just a woman in real need of a people fix. So the next best thing is a book, this book. They always seem to come at the right time, don’t they?
Now, I knew this was not going to be a Rear Window sort of story but that I had fallen into another New York story. But this time I was ready for one. Needing one. I was past my aggravation of the tight circle of agents, editors, and publishers, choosing to publish books that only they could possibly relate to, praise generously, and pop to the top of lists. Fleischman Is In Trouble and My Year of Rest of Relaxation come to mind.
This one was different. The characters’ struggles were universal. Yes, they still might be first world problems, but they felt more relatable. I think any one reading this will feel in sync with one character or another, major or minor.
It’s the story of three couples at different junctures of life.
Twenty-somethings unsure about the commitments they have not yet made, thirty-somethings about the ones they have, and sixty somethings whose empty nest reveals what they might have known but avoided all along.
Nina and Jeremy are thirty somethings. Both attorneys, Nina has left her career to become a full time mother to their two young children. Jeremy works around the clock as a real estate attorney.
Leon and Claudia, both sixty somethings and married for an eternity, live in the building across the street from Nina and Jeremy. She teaches college but her passion is her lifetime research into a stain glass artist, John La Farge, and Leon is an aloof therapist. The highlight of his day is the hours spent in his car waiting for the alternate side street parking to open. They live peaceably, side by side.
Their twenty-something daughter Emma is living with them temporarily as she heals from a broken ankle and contemplates whether or not she wants to finish her doctorate or marry her fiancé, Steven, a self-absorbed writer. Neither Steven nor her thesis interest her any longer but as the perfect, only daughter of passively, demanding parents, both are expected of her.
The story kicks open as Nina, watches these across the street neighbors through her son’s Fisher Price binoculars and as often happens in New York, a city of neighborhoods, their lives become entwined as they meet on the street.
Night vigils are eroded as a different kind intimacy breaks open, an intimacy that threatens decisions that once seemed so natural. Once the slightest opening occurs, all of the characters begin to question what seemed to be their most natural course.
Jeremy reflects, he had gone to college, to law school, he had married, had two children of his own—cocooning himself in all the things he was supposed to be—yet he has never grown past the larval stage of his own becoming.
As we watch, Emma grow into herself and Jeremy begin to realize who he might become and recognition and courage rise up in Claudia, there is also cadre of minor characters that are equally spirited and share in a piece of this delicious pie. Brokenhearted, misunderstood Dog Man, the Vanderbilt niece, Magellan, the explorers of New York’s grand infrastructure lost and found, and Wendy who I think all of us who ever were young parents can somewhat identify with.
The subplots are intricately woven into the narrative in that they don’t take us away from the storyline. They give us witness to lost treasures of the city, the beauty of stained glass windows, the tug between history and new development.
One broiled over into a political controversy over the mothers and their uncontrolled children at the neighborhood café was really well done. It doesn’t really matter where you live, that comes up somewhere! I thought Mirvis handled it superbly— with humor and underlying social commentary on contemporary mothering.
The secret lives of the characters were marvelous. Nina was the uncensored self that just needed a push. Jeremy, unchained from his desk and unrelenting boss, gave us a glimpse of the New York we’d never otherwise see. Claudia, in her own right also gave us a look into the city’s interior beauty that will ultimately reflect back on her. Leon, with a new crack in his shell, may … well who knows? And Emma… I have confidence in her.
The story at its core is how hard it is to know ourselves. What this story reveals is not how rarely we become who we or our parents expect us to be. And it’s not about really knowing the people we find ourselves closest to. It is not knowing ourselves. And that is the loneliest place you can ever find yourself.
Tova Mirvis is no stranger to questions of identity and self reflection. She grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Memphis and chose to leave her family to lead a secular life. She has written about some of that in her other books and essays. She’s someone to keep on your radar.