Visible City

By Tova Mirvis

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $24, 256 pages)

Who is this author?

Tova Mirvis, who lives in Newton, Mass., previously published the novels The Outside World and The Ladies Auxiliary, a national bestseller. She has had essays published in anthologies and newspapers, including The New York Times, Good Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and stories by Mirvis have been broadcast on National Public Radio.

What is this book about?

Kind of a “Rear Window”-style vibe, but without the murder, this is a novel about a woman who relieves the inevitable isolation of being a stay-at-home mom with two little children by using her son’s Fisher-Price binoculars to peep at the people in the windows across the street in an Upper West Side building much like her own.

Here is how Mirvis sets the scene:

“Nina’s living room window offered no sweeping city views, no glimpse of the river or the sky, only the ornate prewar building across the street. She and Jeremy had lived in this Upper West Side apartment for five years but still hadn’t gotten around to buying shades. Even though she looked into other people’s windows, she’d convinced herself that no one was, in turn, watching them. With two sleeping kids, she couldn’t leave the apartment, but it was enough to look out at the varieties of other people’s lives. At nine in the evening the windows across the street were like the rows of televisions in an electronics store, all visible at once. Nina’s eyes flickered back and forth, but she inevitably returned to watching the same square, waiting for the couple to reappear, their quiet togetherness stirring her desire to ride out of her apartment into theirs. Hoping to find them there again, hoping that this might be the night in which they looked up from their books, she didn’t move, not until she was pulled away by the scream of a child.”

The lives of Nina and her husband Jeremy intersect with those of two other couples, challenging their anonymity and forcing them to confront change.

Why you’ll like it:

Mirvis writes with empathy and discernment about couples in their 20s, 30s and 60s, each confronting typical, yet unique to them, problems of relationships. Just as Nina spies on their lives, Mirvis lets us look into their worlds, which are not as simple and structured as Nina once believed. Eventually the watcher and the watched encounter one another and perceptions and reality clash in this occasionally darkly humorous and insightful tale.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:  “If you keep talking to strangers… eventually they become friends.” Mirvis (The Ladies Auxiliary) writes an intimate story about different types of relationships, including those with complete strangers. Mirvis sets her story on New York City’s Upper West Side where two families live in high-rise apartments with their curtains open, one apartment’s windows facing the other’s. Nina, a restless ex-lawyer and current stay-at-home mother, is in possession of her son’s toy binoculars. To fill the lonely hours until her lawyer husband Jeremy gets home from work, she watches, with admiration and growing jealousy, an older couple across the way. One evening, instead of seeing two peaceful companions reading quietly on the couch, Nina sees a youthful couple (temporarily staying in the older couple’s apartment) in a lustful and heated embrace. The sight makes Nina reinterpret the comfortable and quiet love of the older couple, and wish for something closer to what the young couple has. Her new mindset is further complicated when fate steps in, and the lives of Nina’s family and the strangers in the window collide. In this story of chance and the temptation of change, Mirvis elicits the reader’s sympathy for her characters’ conflicting desires.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Anyone who has spent time in Manhattan or watched Hitchcock’s Rear Window will recognize the voyeuristic pleasure that jump-starts Mirvis’ third novel, as a bored young mother stands at her apartment window watching across-the-street neighbors in their living room, unaware that the two families’ lives will soon intertwine. While her lawyer husband, Jeremy, works all hours at his high-pressure firm arranging large real estate development deals, lawyer-turned–stay-at-home-mom Nina is going a little nuts. Trapped in her Upper West Side apartment with 3-year-old Max and baby Lily, Nina spends lonely nights watching a couple reading together in what looks like companionable silence in the building across from hers. Then one day, the couple is replaced by a young woman in a leg cast who argues, then makes love with a young man, aware that she is being watched. The young woman is Emma, who has moved back in with her parents—art historian Claudia and therapist Leon—while her broken ankle heals and she decides how to get out of her engagement. Running into Claudia on the street, Nina recognizes her former professor, who never encouraged her. Nina’s friend Wendy, who presents herself as a perfect mommy, turns out to be one of Leon’s more unhappy patients. Avoiding involvement with his wife and daughter, Leon spends his happiest hours moving his Volvo to obey parking rules. Leon and Nina meet in the neighborhood coffee shop and begin a flirtation. Meanwhile, Jeremy faces a professional crisis that will impact everyone. (The author’s previous fictions were explorations of specifically Jewish communities, and while Mirvis makes only passing mention of Jeremy’s Orthodox upbringing, there is no mistaking her characters’ ethnicity.) It becomes clear that how people appear in the tableaux created by window frames and how they are in real space can be very different. This dark, witty, if slightly overstructured comedy about deceptive appearances evolves into a moving examination of intimacy’s limitations.”

“Mirvis’s meticulously choreographed novel surprises and moves us. She shows the city for what it is behind all its windows and walls: a vast constellation of those ‘truthful moments’ her heroine seeks, as numerous as the stars,” says The New York Times Book Review.

“A complex novel about intersecting lives. . . [that] paints a wry, funny portrait of an Upper West Side in turmoil, where harried mothers endlessly ponder their skills at “parenting”. . . What makes Visible City interesting is Mirvis’s humane, intelligent perception of the emotional lives of her characters,” says the Wall Street Journal.

“By the time she has knitted up all the delicate threads of her story, Mirvis reveals that freedom often involves the acceptance of responsibility, rather than simply casting off the fetters that bind us to daily life. Through Nina’s eyes, she offers a radiant vision of her characters’ newly discovered liberation and of the infinitely complex, extraordinary city in which that kind of reinvention can come to feel like a possibility every day,” says

When is it available?

You can peek into this book at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain Branch.

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