That Artsy Reader Girl lists this week’s Top Ten Tuesday as a freebie, so I decided to look at the various ways that one of my favorite places has been depicted in fiction. I decided to specify fiction because NYC also has a vivid nonfictional presence that I might want to look at in a different post. I think that the incredible diversity that NYC has in terms of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, education and more makes it a great place to set a story.
1. Eloise by Kay Thompson– Even though this is technically “A Book For Precocious Grown-Ups” I loved Eloise as a kid. She lived in the Plaza with her dog, her turtle (Skipperdee, which I always thought was a great name for a turtle) and her nanny and she knew absolutely everything about everyone. I imagine that she’d be an annoying kid to have around if she were real: she bothers people on the elevators and in the hotel lobby, she crashes weddings, she runs up and down the halls, and considers pouring water down the mail chute. But as a kid, I found her hilarious and even today it’s hard not to be charmed by her antics.
2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith– Before Williamsburg was a haven for hipsters, it was an immigrant community. There’s a sense of optimism amidst hardship in this book that begins with the very image of a tree pushing through concrete to grow. It is the optimism of immigrants who left their native countries in the hopes of a better life and it’s the optimism that Francie observes watching moments in the lives of various Brooklynites from her fire escape.
3. Forever by Pete Hamill– Cormac O’Conner arrives in New York as an immigrant in 1740. Thanks to a shipboard incident Cormac is blessed (or cursed) with eternal life, as long as he never leaves the island of Manhattan. Through Cormac’s eyes, we see New York grow from a small settlement to a thriving metropolis over the course of 250 years. He gets involved in the issues of every age. He’s not a passive observer of the city, but rather an active participant, who knows each ally, each street corner, each subway tunnel.
4. The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer– Several teenagers meet at a summer camp for the arts in the 1970’s. They’re all creative and enthusiastic. But the kind of creativity that is celebrated at 15 isn’t always something that can sustain you into adulthood. Jules gives up her dreams of an acting career in favor of something more practical. Her friend, Jonah, gives up the guitar and becomes an engineer. Ethan and Ash, on the other hand, see their artistic dreams come true beyond anything they could have imagined. This is a character study of these friends over the course of several decades. But NYC is very much a character here as well, and we see it change over the years, alongside these characters.
5. The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe– Five women work for an NYC publishing company in the 1950’s. There’s Caroline, who dreams of leaving the typing pool and being an editor. Ivy is a Colorado transplant whose naivete may be her undoing. Gregg is an aspiring actress who gets involved in a potentially dangerous affair with a Broadway producer. Barbara is a divorcee with a two-year-old daughter, who isn’t sure if she’ll ever make it out of her mother’s apartment, and Mary Agnes, who has spent the past two years planning her wedding. This novel follows all of them through promotions, setbacks, break-ups, and breakdowns.
6. Extremely Loud and Terribly Close by Jonathan Safon Foer– Oskar Schell is a nine-year-old New Yorker on an urgent quest that takes him through the city. On 9/11, Oskar’s father died in the World Trade Center. Oskar finds a key that he believes was “sent” by his father, and ventures out into a city, still reeling with grief and shock, to find the lock that it fits, or the person who owns the key. His mission takes him all over the city, where he befriends a wide array of inhabitants. While the premise of the book is definitely sad, it’s not without humor. And like the city that he calls home, Oskar is a survivor.
7. Night Film by Marisha Pessl– Scott McGrath is a reporter who is interested in the reclusive film director Stanislas Cordova. Cordova is known for making horror/thriller/dark films. When Cordova’s daughter, Ashley commits suicide downtown, Scott is convinced that there’s more to the story than meets the eye. He begins to investigate. It’s hard for the reader to identify the point where Scott falls down the rabbit hole, but the NYC where he investigates is a sort of nightmare version of the real thing. Things that should be familiar to him take on strange, threatening shades and Scott begins to doubt everything that he once believed.
8. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton– This novel is set in the 1870’s when the city was in a state of transition; farmland would be next to beautiful mansions. It involves an engaged, upper-class couple and the arrival of a woman with a scandalous past, who may threaten their plans. I chose this one over some other Wharton novels because it seems to ooze its setting (in a good way!)
9. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara– Four friends graduate college and move to the city to pursue their dreams. For some of them, the city represents the opportunity to fulfill their ambitions. Willem is an aspiring actor, JB is an artist, and Malcolm is an architect. But for Jude, it’s a place where he might finally be able to escape his past. While it’s easy to be anonymous in such a big and busy city, this book celebrates friendship and devotion. In this book, NYC seems to be an almost friendly place, because its where these characters find that kind of friendship (and because most of the other places in the book are decidedly unfriendly).
10. The Gilded Hour by Sara Donati– Anna Savard and her cousin, Sophie, are both graduates of Women’s Medical School. They live in NYC in 1883, and treat some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. When they cross paths with Anthony Comstock, an anti-vice crusader who considers himself the enemy of anything indecent (like birth control), everything that they’ve worked for is put at risk. At the same time, they must reunite a family, catch a killer, and find the courage to break out of the places they feel safest.