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Through Gopnik's Gate...New York seen magnificently through a writer's lens
on February 1, 2007
I should preface this review with some background: I am a pediatrician, working and living in New York, and this book first caught my eye just from the title. When I read the jacket liner and discovered it was, at least in part, about raising children in New York, I felt I had to give it a whirl. I was not too familiar with Gopnik's essays in The New Yorker, though his name was familiar to me and his writing had been recommended to me many times. It was with this background sense of his work that I began to read.
And read, I did. From the first moment I picked up this book I was engulfed and enthralled. This book is a collection of essays written from the author's perspective. He had lived in Paris for 5 years on assignment for The New Yorker Magazine, and returned to New York City in 2000 primarily out of homesickness and out of a desire to raise his family there. Gopnik knows New York, but a lot had changed since the last time he lived here, and this collection of essays is really about his rediscovery of the city, through his own eyes as well as those of others: his children, most notably, but also his wife and some of his close friends. His essays, which feel at times more like stories, are of course tempered by and work through the enormity of 9/11. And the New York he describes is as much the New York of and around 9/11 as it is the New York that it always has been and yet also a new city formed by nothing other than the march of progress.
His subject matter is of two parts, both close to my own heart--New York city and children. He does them both such amazing justice in this book.
Gopnik's prose is a joy to behold, both familiar and formal, intricately planned yet at times stream-of-consciousness in style. His skill as a writer is as much in this, his technical mastery of the genre, as it is in his easy ability to depict emotions ranging from humor to pathos succintly yet poignantly. His skills suit his subjects perfectly. The city crackles to life underneath his pen, as he captures in amazing clarity what it is like to sit awake and look out at the windows around the city at 3 AM, or what it felt like to watch the city burn 5 1/2 years ago, or what central park means to the city and those in it. He is the quintessential New Yorker, and yet, perhaps because he left the city, he is able now to see it so much more clearly without taking it for granted as the rest of us do.
But the real heart of this book lies in his portrayal of his children. Through his writing we see his love for Olivia and Luke leap off of the page and, without being overly trite, right into our hearts. The way he describes himself already preparing for when they leave home...the way he opines on what the earth must feel like when zen masters leave it--his children are his life, and it shows brilliantly. As someone without children of my own, but who works with them on a daily basis, I can attest to the accuracy with which Gopnik captures their idiosyncracies while still making painfully clear how alike they truly are. By the end of this book, the reader feels he or she knows Gopnik, his family, his children, and the reader feels for him. Or at least I did.
This is, once again, a wonderful read. Light, funny, and yet undeniably heavy and full of rich sadness and depth, and at times all at once. Gopnik has outdone himself. As we step through the Children's Gate, we enter his world, and when the book ends we just don't want to leave.