A moving story of friendship, loss and life in New York
December, 2008. A heavy snowstorm is blowing through Manhattan and the economy is on the brink of collapse, but none of that matters to a handful of guests at a posh holiday party. Five years after their college graduation, the fiercely devoted friends at the heart of this richly absorbing novel remain as inseparable as ever: editor and social butterfly Sara Sherman, her troubled astronomer boyfriend George Murphy, loudmouth poet Jacob Blaumann, classics major turned investment banker William Cho, and Irene Richmond, an enchanting artist with an inscrutable past.
Amid cheerful revelry and free-flowing champagne, the friends toast themselves and the new year ahead — a year that holds many surprises in store. They must navigate ever-shifting relationships with the city and with one another, determined to push onward in pursuit of their precarious dreams. And when a devastating blow brings their momentum to a halt, the group is forced to reexamine their aspirations and chart new paths through unexpected losses.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, when I started Why We Came to the City. I had picked up Jansma’s previous novel a couple of years back, but hadn’t had the chance to read it, yet. There was something about this one, though, that caught my attention and never really let go. I started reading the novel very shortly after I received a review copy from the publisher, and despite taking just a little while to get used to the style and rhythm, I was hooked.
Jansma is particularly skilled in two areas: his prose and his characters. The former is excellent, with a distinctive style. As I mentioned, it took me a little while to get accustomed to the rhythm, but for the main Jansma’s prose is tight and often offers up lyrical descriptions. It’s not a fast-paced novel, but given the quality, I found myself reading at any and every opportunity. There were some moments, it’s true, when I thought the narrative was just a little choppy, or unclear. But, this was of minor concern, and mainly in the earlier chapters, as we’re becoming familiar with the characters, their dynamics and their social orbits.
Each of the characters is interesting and distinct. The story’s perspective shifts, with certain characters featuring more prominently towards the beginning, and others only getting full attention later in the book. I enjoyed this, as it meant certain opinions were turned on their heads, once we got inside a character’s head. A good example of this is Jacob, who is far more complex and insecure than we might originally be led to believe (and who I originally didn’t much care for). They are also, most importantly, realistic: they are insecure, they are narcissistic in their own ways, and yet we root for them. Each of them at least eventually worms his or her way into our affections. Together, they weather challenges, confront obstacles and find a measure of happiness and/or contentment.
As for the story? That’s excellent, too, although somewhat tricky to discuss in detail. This is not usually the case with literary fiction — I find that, oftentimes, there’s a pretty clear genre formula to which they adhere, but thankfully Jansma mixes it up plenty. An important, life-shattering event halfway through the novel shifts our focus and the characters’ actions in new and interesting ways. It has a dual impact of bringing the group closer together, but also opening up fissures in their relationships. This tragedy aside, each of the characters is going through some typical experiences: they are young, newly graduated, living in a city that they cannot afford, and unsure of what their futures may hold. They are holding on to youthful enthusiasms and optimism with everything they have — not happy at the prospect of their hopes and dreams not being fulfilled. Nevertheless, they are determined to remain in a city in which they secretly admit they do not belong.
A young author with bucketloads of talent, I can’t wait to read Jansma’s next novel.