[16 February 2011]
Ariel Sabar, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for his autobiography, My Father’s Paradise, takes on a new and what I’d hoped to be exciting endeavor with his recent collection of stories about love found in New York. Not necessarily love found by New Yorkers themselves, though, as most of the stories deal with people traveling through New York and meeting in famous locales such as Central Park, The Empire State Building (didn’t they make a movie about this with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?), The MET, and of course, the most serendipitous of all: a subway. Not to mention the predictable Statue of Liberty, and—gasp:—Times Square (I’m thinking of another film here, with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale). The only thing missing is a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude and a five-dollar bill.
The jacket hails that these are remarkable, true stories (some names have been changed) of nine ordinary couples spanning from 1940 to present day, who’ve fallen in love in New York City. I’m not a fan of love stories, unless they deal with the true underpinnings and emotional travails of what love means. Sabar writes about love in a way that is almost unbelievable.
Predictable dialogue (that seems almost stilted and unreal), coupled with too many happy endings earns this collection a spot on a self-help shelf in any Barnes & Noble in Manhattan or beyond. With fairness, a happy ending doesn’t ruin a story, but the lack of emotional pull does, and did.
Unfortunately, I think Sabar’s history as a journalist has clouded his storytelling in this collection. Many of the entries read as reportage. Many read as flat romantic stories. I can see Nora Ephron plucking a few for upcoming movies. And why not? With the help of the right screenwriter, some of these tales may soar on the big screen.
Yes, it’s quite sad to see a young woman sleeping in Central Park. But a sailor sweeping in to save her life (though, I realize this is a true story) simply didn’t ring true. I suppose that’s the difficulty in navigating truth and fiction. The two don’t belong together. By all accounts, fiction is a lie that feels true, not the other way around.
In the story “Elevation”, Claire, getting ready for bed answers her phone: “Hey babe…I’m hopping over to New York this weekend. We gotta get together and paint the Big Apple Red.” This is the type of media res that puts me to sleep.
How about Sabar’s description of Claire (an attempt at pathos, perhaps?) “Claire, twenty-nine, was the youngest of five kids raised on a small Missouri farm that didn’t have so much as mechanical heat or running water. When the family was cold, her dad built a fire. When she needed a new dress, she and her mother stitched one from the cotton sacks her dad gave them after emptying out the pig feed.” Is this pulling at your heartstrings? If the answer is yes, than this collection may be the uplifting, believe-in-love-and-it-will-come-to-you, collection for you.
I believe the 18 people this book features may have found each other in this almost idealistic, too-good-to-be-true way, and they may still be together, now with big families, and love-filled holidays and whatnot. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me. Perhaps it’s the lover of stories in me. Either way, this collection reads like one Ashton Kutcher movie after another.
Sabar is a renowned journalist. Alas, his dedication to getting each story right may have been where he began to go wrong.