It was April 2017 when I visited New York for the first time; I was traveling with my family over the Easter break and I had taken a few days off work to accommodate for a nice full week in the city that never sleeps. [We did sleep, though. This is what walking for hours each day does to you.]
New York, whatever the circumstances, is a remarkable, unforgettable experience; a life lesson in itself. It was, at the same time, a disappointment for me. Disclaimer: New York is supposed to be this mythical destination that most keen travellers are likely to name as their favourite city in the world. Their favourite adventure of all time. That is to say, I was mainly left disappointed with myself for being unable to fall head-over-heels with it, to be consumed by its size, glory and – if we’re being honest – grimness. New York made me realise that London was home. That I’ll always be someone who craves the continental idiosyncrasy that only European cities with the old town bits and bobs can offer, or at least the spatial proximity of a few hours’ long flight to them – I’m not deluded, UK’s an island after all.
Nevertheless, I was a bit smitten, that I’d have to admit. New York is New York after all. And it’s a city I’ve been revisiting, albeit through literature, more frequently that one would imagine. So, here’s a list of books that will give you a glimpse into the life of this city and, hopefully, make you fall in love with it a bit too. All of the books suggested below are beautiful reads that evoke a clear sense of place with the city being an key character to the plot rather than solely the background against which each story unravels.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
In this beloved modern classic, Betty Smith writes about New York at the turn of the 20th century through the eyes of Francie Nolan, an impoverished but ambitious adolescent girl and her family living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Her bittersweet formative years are marked by extreme poverty, hunger, desperation, a hard-working mother who prefers her younger brother to her, and a charismatic but alcoholic father. Her active imagination, her love for books and relentless pursuit of an education help Francie seek her way out of a predetermined future. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a raw, poignant and tenderly written coming of age story – long before the genre became fashionable.
Darling Days: A Memoir by iO Tillett Wright
Unfolding in the 1980s and 1990s, Darling Days is an intense, devastating memoir; a whirlwind of emotions that brilliantly captures the urban bohemia of New York’s Lower East Side. iO comes of age at an era of freedom and addiction, nonconformity, struggle for survival, drag, punk, poverty, heroin and performance art. She writes with heart-breaking lucidity about her exploration of gender and identity already during her youngest years as well as about her relationship with her loving but abusive mother.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
A warm-hearted and skilfully written novel that tells the story of nineteen-year-old Vivian Moris who gets kicked out of Vassar College and is sent by her parents to Manhattan to live with her aunt Peg, the owner of a flamboyant yet derelict midtown theatre. There she is enchanted by its unconventional and charismatic characters and delves straight into the frantic, exciting rhythms of New York’s lifestyle. Eventually (but not unexpectedly), Vivian gets involved in a scandal, which turns her world upside down and makes her reconsider her life choices, her relationships to others and herself. Gilbert has graced us with another page-turner that touches upon the issues of love, sexuality, identity, family and loss with tenderness and eloquence.
Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
A hymn to city life at its best and worst, Lilian Boxfish Takes a Walk tells the uplifting story of a copywriter who becomes the highest paid advertising woman in the country and took New York by story, against the background of an ever-changing nation – taking the reader from the Jazz Age and the Dirty Thirties all the way to the AIDS epidemic and the birth of hip-hop. On the last night of 1984, Lilian, now an impeccably dressed and sharp octogenarian, decides to take a long walk around the city that made her and reminisce a long life full of excitement, joy, adversity, passion and loss whilst taking note of all the ways in which New York has changed – and has not.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Shortly after her arrival in New York, twenty-two-year-old Tess lands a job as a backwaiter in a celebrated downtown Manhattan restaurant and so starts her journey in two parallel worlds: the glamorous world of fine dining where she gains an education on food and the art of being a sommelier, and the dingy ‘backstage’ reality of booze, dive bars, cocaine and erratic love affairs. Danler captures with remarkable dexterity the high-adrenaline world of hospitality and the challenges of navigating New York as a young adult.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
Or Sex and The City, if it was based in 1930s Manhattan – this is a fun, glamorous and indulgent read with great attention to period detail. Katey Kontent narrates the story of how she met Tinker Grey, an enigmatic, charming Wall Street banker who lives his life according to George Washington’s Rules of Civility. This chance encounter marks the start of her journey from being another face in the secretarial pool to New York’s high society, where she lands a coveted role with Condé Nast.
Phew, narrowing down this list was very tricky! Hope this inspire you to get lost in one of these novels and, once we’re back to normality, start planning your own escape to New York…
Stay safe, stay sane!