(Actual rating: 3.5 stars)
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
During the first few chapters of Why We Came To The City, I feared this book and I weren’t going to be a good match. The sweeping, grandiose prose was too contrived, the characters too unrelatable. As I read on, however, I discovered there were two levels to this story. The lofty, contemplative level of philosophy and grandiloquence, the level at which the book started, didn’t do anything for me. The intimate level of emotions and personal insights, on the other hand, was spot-on, moving, and changed my perspective about the book.
Jansma’s novel opens with a wide view, introducing the reader to the five main characters as they hobnob at an art show. They’re positioned as five variations on the “Aspiring Young Professionals in NYC” theme, up-and-coming 20-somethings with starry eyes and big dreams. For the first few chapters, I despaired of connecting with any of them. They were so pretentious with their big-city affectations and tweed jackets, arguing the superiority of various translations of The Iliad and debating the meaning of Art, with a capital “A.” They seemed like two-dimensional representations instead of real people; they were the Free-Spirited Artist, the Go-Getter Newspaper Editor, the Gay Poet, etc., when what I really wanted were unique individuals with their own traits and fears and experiences.
A few chapters in, I got the character development I was after. One of the protagonists was diagnosed with cancer. The lens narrowed, the focus became personal, and Why We Came To The City hit its stride. The characters stopped being two-dimensional caricatures and simply became five people who were hurting and trying to figure out how to deal with that hurt in in their own personal way.
Through tiny, precise details, Jansma peeled back the layers of his characters like the layers of an onion. There was wise-cracking Jacob, trying to mask his fear with sarcasm and sass, and take-charge, hyper-organized Sarah, who tried to control the situation with medication charts and precisely timed visitation schedules. There was George, whose fraying nerves could only be soothed by a drink or 10, and William, who questioned whether he was somehow to blame for his girlfriend’s illness.
“In those dark hours with his eyes shut, he had been counting disappointments on a hundred imaginary fingers. Not things that he was disappointed by but disappointments of his own making. Things like having made more money than he deserved, doing mergers for companies with questionable ethics, being a terrible son – anything he felt the universe might be punishing him for by making the woman that he loved so sick.”
As a rule, I generally avoid “cancer books.” In fact, if I’d known that’s what I was getting in Why We Came To The City, I probably wouldn’t have requested a review copy. However, Jansma’s book isn’t really about the disease, it’s about coming to terms with the fact that life doesn’t pull its punches, no matter who you are or what you think you deserve. The five friends in this novel start out on top of the world, expectant and ready for the best life has to offer. When life dishes up tragedy instead, they must figure out how to regroup and keep moving forward.
“For she was special, and had always believed it. She was more punctual, and she was better prepared. […] Always recycling and never littering. Better behaved and never hypocritical. Harder working at the office, tipping more generously, and possessing of a thousand pardons. And yet she couldn’t save Irene just by trying hardest or being best. Because no one was immune to tragedy. No matter how respectfully Sara lived, death could not respect her in return. She, Irene, all of them were susceptible to collapse, regardless of preparations or punctuality or propriety. None of them were special.”
As I’ve already mentioned, Jansma’s attention to detail and ability to paint an intimate picture of the characters’ experiences are what really won me over to Why We Came To The City. At times, Jansma would move away from this personal focus, broadening the book’s gaze to a more abstract, contemplative view. During these sections I would find myself losing interest and feeling the distance growing between the characters and myself.
Eventually, the lens would narrow again and there would be a poignant, penetrating line that socked me in the chest and actually brought tears to my eyes. There would be a moment when one of the friends would try his hardest to give up a vice, to make a deal with God that if he could just be good enough his friend would recover. Or another moment when another friend would look back at their collective lives and wonder how they’d become the people they currently were:
“Now it seemed undeniable to him that, whereas his New York family had indeed been happy in the way that all groups of young dreamers are happy before they’ve given up, they were all quite unhappy now, each in their own special ways. That was what made it all the more miserable: they couldn’t even be unhappy together.”
It’s these small but important insights that Jansma does exceptionally well. They resonated with me and affected me deeply. [START SPOILER] When Jacob revealed his last words to Irene, I had to put the book down and walk away until I’d calmed down enough to read again. [END SPOILER] They’re also what taught me the lesson of this book: Life may not care about our dreams, but that doesn’t mean we should stop dreaming. As Jacob aptly points out:
“You’ve got to entrust yourself to the waves, lash yourself to the mast, pray the gods are on your side, and rely on cunning to survive the rest. The seas are full of forgotten monsters, yes, but they’re full of forgotten glories too. And the people who stay home and sit out the war never get to see them.”
Viking/Penguin has graciously offered to host a giveaway of Why We Came To The City! This is a U.S.-only giveaway, and it ends at midnight on May 12, 2016. To enter for a chance to win, please fill out the Rafflecopter form below.