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Book Review: The invisible becomes visible.

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Book Review: Tova Mirvis's "Visible City"

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How many of us have approached a large window in the city, and have been tempted to close the lights, settle into a comfortable chair, and pull out some very strong binoculars to spy on our neighbors' lives? Like Nina, the protagonist in Tova Mirvis' latest novel Visible City, do we fool ourselves by thinking no one is looking back at us? Ever. Think again, because every time you observe someone's behavior, be aware that yours is not so invisible. Mirvis describes how her own personal loneliness after moving from her Upper West Side apartment in New York City to a Boston suburb, motivated her writing. She missed Manhattan. Like "so many New Yorkers," she tells an online interviewer, "I used to look into the building across the way, catching snippets of people's lives." Mirvis takes the elements of her private thoughts and skillfully weaves an engrossing tale of psychological, political, and sociological depth.

But she wasn't just a voyeur. Understanding that city life offers "a unique combination of privacy and intimacy," she sought "to catch a glimpse of what goes on beneath the surface of everyday life." However, Mirvis, a Scholar in Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, explains that: “Being a novelist is a lot like being a voyeur, where you are always curious about what goes on in other people’s lives. Both see glimpses of other lives and construct a story around that.” It was no accident that the protagonist Nina spies on Leon, a therapist, because both the novelist and the therapist watch for clues in visible behavior to understand how the invisible life seeks closure. All the characters evolve to uncover truths that lead to resolution. Mirvis says that “The multiple perspective novel is like the equivalent of getting to peer into all the windows across the way; it’s the chance to see what everyone around you is thinking and feeling.”

Nina is drawn to the therapist in a natural alliance, never dreaming that in his "idyllic" marriage he fails to see the invisible depths of his wife Claudia. He doesn't understand her wife's screaming at the construction workers who are building the high rise next to her window, which community activists have named the “Yuppie Condo.” Even Nina’s marriage to Jeremy, a hard working lawyer who is forced to work late, hides the needs of her husband. Their son Max becomes fond of his baby-sitter Emma, who happens to be Leon and Claudia’s daughter. The intertwined lives of these six people reveal the unrevealed lines of connection in striking scenes that unclothe more than mere garments.

When Leon describes his profession as one “not of grand drama but of small moments of insight,” it is contrasted to Claudia’s love of historic stained-glass windows. But the novel involves grand drama of deep life-changing proportions, and it all hinges around Claudia’s expertise. It would be maudlin to call this hinge art therapy, because the revelations involve a passion involving the hidden talents of both the lawyer and the art historian. It would not be a spoiler to mention that these explorations involve New York City’s underground caverns, and elegant old subway stations now unused and yes, invisible to most folk.

Interestingly enough, there is a “Visible City” project and archive that “seeks to discern how art practices function in a specific contemporary urban contexts as a tool for enhancing communication and renovating democratic citizenship.” http://www.visiblecity.ca/index.php/project Mirvis has written a gripping novel that exemplifies this and more; it demonstrates how alive an old artwork can be and how it can transform a materialistic endeavor into a cityscape informed by art and the needs of its citizens. It is in the tradition of Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities who argued that urban renewal ignores its neighbors’ viewpoint, especially in New York City. An old issue is renovated in this satisfying read. This reviewer was engrossed enough to read it in one sitting.

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