Like the new high rises that dominate the skyline of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Tova Mirvis’ third novel, “Visible City,” is both a paean and a lament for a world contained within one neighborhood. It is also a book that brilliantly unfurls connections that overlap and intersect between strangers and lovers. The arresting first scene sets up those relationships as the reader meets Nina, a young stay-at-home mother, who peers into her neighbors’ windows late at night while her husband Jeremy toils away at a midtown law firm.
Using her son’s Fisher-Price binoculars, Nina observes Leon and Claudia, an older couple, who are seemingly content to read side-by-side on their sofa every night, and their daughter Emma whose relationship with her fiancée is unraveling before Nina’s eyes. In Mirvis’ well-crafted story, these characters will eventually interact in person and come to know each other organically.
Mirvis says that “Visible City” took 10 years to complete. She began writing the novel to assuage her homesickness for the Upper West Side, where she lived before moving to the Boston suburbs. In her decade of writing the book, Mirvis notes that she scattered some of her identity among several of her characters. “Nina is somewhat autobiographical. I wrote her when I was in mother mode.”
Mirvis, who is 41 and the mother of three children ages six to 15, has recently broken through the façade of fiction with an essay she published in the New York Times about her divorce. “I had an urge to tell a story about my own religious experience and how divorce plays into it.” She begins many of the sentences in the essay about her misgivings over Orthodox Judaism with the phrase: “I was supposed to be.”
Brought up as a Modern Orthodox feminist, Mirvis’ family has lived in Memphis, Tennessee for six generations. “I don’t call myself Orthodox anymore,” she says. “For the first time in my life I’m enjoying not calling myself anything, not adhering to rules. I’m at the stage of not being something until I am something. I often attend a synagogue in Newton [Massachusetts], which describes itself as traditional egalitarian.”
As Mirvis writes in her essay, she had long questioned the minutia that makes up many of Judaism’s traditional laws. “I was supposed to believe that all the religious laws were just and true and binding upon me, that God lived inside the most seemingly insignificant details. But even from a young age, I had wondered: Is this all true?”
Picking up that thread in conversation, Mirvis notes that, “One can see my books as a trajectory of my wrestling. I push my characters to the edge.” Mirvis’ spiritual quest may have begun with the writing of her first novel, “The Ladies Auxiliary.” In that book, Mirvis exposed the outer and inner worlds of Orthodox women in Memphis. One of her observantly Jewish characters takes surreptitious bites of shrimp salad that she hides in the back of her freezer. She began the book as a Master of Fine Arts candidate at Columbia University where she worked with Rebecca Goldstein and Binnie Kirshenbaum. She credits the two writers with taking her work seriously and urging her to take her writing to new creative heights.
But in “Visible City,” Mirvis admits that she had to “push past my own sense of holding back. The truth of the book is that I created characters that were unhappy, but ruminated and stewed about it. In an earlier version of the book I wanted to end it with these characters living in their own imagination. But I ended up with characters that unleashed what they were feeling. They reflected a bold version of myself who was not afraid to take action.”
Mirvis’ bolder version of herself includes writing a memoir, a literary venture with which she is still coming to terms. “It’s a verbal hang up I have to get over. The reality is that some material works better in fiction and some better in memoir. But nonfiction is scarier because there is nowhere to hide. In many ways, my divorce was the result of a growing recognition that I couldn’t keep pretending to be someone I wasn’t. I had this feeling of covering myself, of not belonging.”
Mirvis was working on a novel about her family’s immigration from Germany to Memphis in 1873 that she put aside to concentrate on her memoir. She is also writing another novel based in Newton. Her southern sensibility of place as a living and breathing entity is evident throughout her work. It is a sensibility that is palpable whether she writes fiction that unfolds on the Upper West Side or in a personal essay in which she stands in front of a council of rabbis in a rabbinical court “released from the house of my husband, to have authority over myself.”