In ‘Visible City,’ Tova Mirvis adds pain to her palette

In ‘Visible City,’ Tova Mirvis adds pain to her palette

The author divorced her husband and left Orthodoxy during the decade she wrote her latest novel, about the parts of us we keep hidden

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Author Tova Mirvis. (photo credit: Nina Subin)
Author Tova Mirvis. (photo credit: Nina Subin)

Even without knowing how substantially Tova Mirvis’s life has altered in the past decade, readers familiar with her previous novels, “The Ladies Auxiliary” (1999) and “The Outside World” (2004), will read new novel “Visible City” (2014) and sense something has shifted for the author.

The first two novels dealt with life within the Orthodox Jewish community. In the new novel, which takes place on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, it is implied that most of the characters are Jewish, but none of them are Orthodox. Judaism and issues of Jewish identity and community play no role in the narrative, save for mention of the Orthodox upbringing of a young husband and father named Jeremy, who is no longer observant.

A lot can happen in ten years. For author Tova Mirvis, the decade has included a divorce and leaving Orthodox Judaism. Perhaps “Visible City,” about the parts of ourselves we reveal to the world and the parts we keep hidden, is a window into Mirvis’s inner changes.

In a conversation with The Times of Israel, Mirvis, 41, insists that she did not set out to write a novel so thematically different from her previous ones. She thought that it would become more Jewish as the writing went on, but it didn’t.

“Fiction and life intertwine in ways we don’t know why,” she reflects.

“Visible City” is a story told on an intimate scale and with keen observation about three couples whose lives intersect in the shadow of a modern, glass apartment tower being built among the brownstones and pre-war buildings on the Upper West Side. Commitment phobic twenty-somethings Emma and Steven, overwhelmed and exhausted thirty-somethings Nina and Jeremy, and regretful sixty-somethings Claudia and Leon all grapple with hidden desires and the risks inherent in acting on them.

'Visible City' is Tova Mirvis' third novel. (courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
‘Visible City’ is Tova Mirvis’ third novel. (courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Mirvis can be forgiven for the overly contrived way in which the lives of all the characters — members of the three couples, as well as a number of supporting characters — neatly intertwine plot-wise. The heavy-handed use of metaphor can also be given a pass. “Visible City” is meant to be an emotionally realistic novel, not an accurate reflection of the connections among neighbors in a gentrified New York neighborhood.

The emotion that pervades the novel is loneliness, and it was loneliness that compelled Mirvis to begin writing “Visible City.”

“At first, the novel was about the loneliness I felt after moving from New York to the Boston suburbs ten years ago. I missed the constant engagement of city life,” explains Mirvis, who arrived in New York from her native Memphis, Tennessee in 1991. (She lived on the Upper West Side for 13 years while pursuing an undergraduate degree and an MFA in fiction writing from Columbia University.)

But as the years went on and the author’s life began to change in very significant ways, the emotional scope of the novel grew.

“The novel asks what it means to see our outer facades versus what is inside of us,” Mirvis says. “It’s about the gap between the inside and the outside, and also about who can see inside us, in to the spaces we seal off inside ourselves.”

‘The novel asks what it means to see our outer facades versus what is inside of us’

Just as “Visible City” saw the light of day, Mirvis published an opinion piece, in The New York Times about her divorce from her husband, whom she had married in her early 20s and with whom she has three children. In “Divorce From My Husband, And My Faith,” Mirvis recounts what happened in 2012 at the beit din at which she was given her get, her religious divorce, from her husband.

“It felt impossible that any of them could understand why, a month shy of my 40th birthday, after almost 17 years of marriage and three children, I had upended the foundations of my life. I was barely able to believe it myself,” she writes at the beginning of the piece.

Toward the end of the oped, it becomes clear the author is confident in her decision to accept the divorce decree and all that it represents.

“At the sound of the door closing behind me, the divorce took effect. So did something new inside me. One separation made way for another. The divorce, I realized, was from more than my husband — it was also a break with a way of life with which I had long wrestled, in which I did not sufficiently believe.”

'Visible City' author Tova Mirvis. 'I grew up with a sense that things can’t be said. I’m breaking past that barrier.' (photo credit: Nina Subin)
‘Visible City’ author Tova Mirvis. ‘I grew up with a sense that things can’t be said. I’m breaking past that barrier.’ (photo credit: Nina Subin)

Mirvis says that at this point, she no longer considers herself Orthodox, but at the same time is not interested in being affixed with any other Jewish labels. She is currently working on a memoir that builds on the non-fiction essays she has written in the past about her wrestling with Orthodoxy, as well as on the questions she raises in her New York Times piece.

“It’s nerve wracking to put your own personal story out there,” she shares. “I grew up with a sense that things can’t be said. I’m breaking past that barrier. I feel an obligation to tell the truth as I see it.”

When she started writing “Visible City,” Mirvis was focused on parting with New York City. Ten years later, she is letting go of much more.

“Loss is an inevitable part of change. You pay a very heavy price for change, even if it is necessary,” she says.

“Change and pain are part of my writer’s palette now.”

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