Off the shelf | New novels offer window into our selves, our neighbors

Two long-awaited novels were released last month.

Admirers of “The Ladies Auxiliary” and “The Outside World,” by Tova Mirvis, have been anticipating a follow-up for a decade. But her new novel, “Visible City,” will come as a surprise to those who are presuming a return to the memorable Orthodox community of Memphis featured in her previous books.

“Visible City” takes place almost entirely in Manhattan, and Judaism receives scant attention.

The novel focuses on Nina, who has given up her law career to become a stay-at-home mom. Her lack of fulfillment is reflected in her nightly ritual: with her kids tucked in and her husband perennially staying late at the office, she turns off the lights in her living room and employs her son’s toy binoculars to gaze into the window of the apartment directly across the street. Peering at the middle-age couple and young woman opposite her, Nina is envious of the lives she imagines them to lead — even more envious than she is of the capable young mothers she hangs out with during the day.

These perceptions will get a correction over the course of the book, particularly once Nina begins to cross paths with members of the family she has been spying on. It will turn out that the fire animating the marriage of Leon and Claudia, the neighboring couple, has largely burned out, and that their daughter, Emma, is engaged to a man about whom she feels increasingly ambivalent. Nina will establish a deep connection to Leon, who shares her loneliness.

Meanwhile, Nina’s husband, Jeremy, is finding himself unable to stomach his job as an attorney representing real estate developers. While in a library doing research, he meets Claudia, unaware that she is his neighbor. An art historian, Claudia tells Jeremy of her effort to track down a lost stained-glass window by 19th-century master John La Farge. Suspecting that the window in question may be boarded up within an old mansion that his law firm is working to get demolished, Jeremy embarks on a personal quest to save the building — at the risk of demolishing his own career.

We can deduce that most of the characters are Jewish, but Mirvis keeps this dimension marginal. This is not a Jewish tale, but an urban one. Although we tend to think of cities as fostering a certain anonymity, Mirvis highlights the roles that Manhattan’s physical spaces assume, forming an ever-changing urban ecosystem that offers opportunities for personal connection as an antidote to the isolation and disappointment that so many of the characters feel.

The idea of visibility and invisibility evoked by the title carries on throughout the book in multiple ways. New York’s cityscape itself takes on metaphorical dimensions, as when Jeremy goes on an illegal subterranean excursion to the shuttered, exquisite City Hall subway station. Just as the thousands who walk above the station daily are unable to behold the gem beneath their feet, so Nina’s peeping through binoculars cannot summon the reality of people’s inner lives. It is only when she develops the courage to transcend voyeurism and encounter the world directly that she can uncover what lies hidden.

Ellen Litman is among a group extraordinarily talented North American Jewish immigrant writers, such as Gary Shteyngart and Irina Reyn, who were born within a few years of each other in the former Soviet Union in the early 1970s. In her celebrated 2007 story collection, “The Last Chicken in America,” Litman depicted the lives of Russian immigrants in Pittsburgh’s largely Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Her debut novel, “Mannequin Girl,” is a coming-of-age story set in Litman’s native Moscow in the waning years of the USSR.

Moving from 1980 to 1988, the novel follows Kat Knopman from her diagnosis of scoliosis as a young child through her graduation from the boarding school for children with spinal conditions to which she is consigned. The journey is a frequently painful one, as Kat must contend with the medical interventions needed to address her scoliosis, the cruelty of many of her fellow students, and a surfeit of drama within her own family. But despite being rendered an outsider doubly by her physical affliction and her Jewishness, Kat remains remarkably resourceful and determined.

Among the book’s most salient elements is Kat’s evolving relationship to her parents. Popular high school literature teachers, passionate intellectuals and borderline subversives, Anechka and Misha are heroes in their daughter’s eyes. With her ailment having steered her life off course, Kat is terribly worried about becoming a disappointment to them. However, it turns out to be Anechka and Misha who fail to thrive. Unable to bear a second child, Anechka becomes increasingly depressed and reckless. And as perestroika is accompanied by a resurgence of nationalism and anti-Semitism around them, conditions call for strength that Kat alone is able to summon.

Both of these novels are characterized by great empathy, with sensitive portrayals of both adolescent and adult insecurities. To borrow Mirvis’s metaphor, they demonstrate the power of literature to provide a window on both what we can see, and what we cannot.

“Visible City” by Tova Mirvis (256 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24)

“Mannequin Girl” by Ellen Litman (352 pages, W.W. Norton, $25.95)


Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.