Review

Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York

by Adam Gopnik



Readers of The New Yorker who relish each issue that
contains an Adam Gopnik essay will be delighted that 20 of them
have been collected in this rich offering of his work. Those
unacquainted with Gopnik's graceful and allusive prose are likely
to become instant fans.

Taking its title from the name of the Central Park entrance at
Seventy-sixth Street and Fifth Avenue, the collection is unified by
Gopnik's captivating insights into the lives of his precocious
children, Luke and Olivia, as they adapt to life in their new home.
That focus is apt, for, he observes, about the Upper West Side
world into which they settle, comfortably but not entirely without
unease, "a constant obsessive-compulsive anxiety about children ---
their health, their future, the holes in their socks, and the
fraying of their psyches --- is taken entirely for granted
here."

In September 2000 Gopnik and his family returned to New York, after
five years in Paris that provided the material for his acclaimed
book PARIS TO THE MOON. In that time, he notes, "The map of the
city we carried just five years ago hardly corresponds to the city
we know today, while the New Yorks we knew before that are buried
completely." That first autumn is portrayed as an idyllic time, its
innocence made more poignant when viewed backwards through the lens
of 9/11.

Two of the pieces, "The City and the Pillars" and "Urban Renewal,"
deal explicitly with the events of that day and its aftermath, but
the fear and anxiety it engendered shadow much of Gopnik's
narrative. In a characteristically arresting metaphor that captures
the profound and yet curious effect the terrorist attacks had on
the city, he notes, "It's as though the sinking of the
Titanic had taken place right beside a subway station and
been watched by a frightened or curious crowd who saw something
unbelievable, the great ship listing and rising up and breaking in
two and the people falling from the funnel, and then walked home
from the disaster and showed their families that their hands were
still cold from touching the iceberg." Yet despite the disaster,
Gopnik writes, New Yorkers "learned to live on one foot, hopping
along spiritually in more or less normal times." Again, he returns
to his theme of children and families: "The real question that
pressed itself upon us as parents was how to let our children live
in joy in a time of fear, how to give light enough to live in when
what we saw were so many shadows."

 

The New York life Gopnik sketches in these essays is anything but
unremittingly anxious or bleak. There are numerous moments of sly
humor that leaven the more serious essays. Readers will chuckle as
Gopnik, at best a casually observant Jew, grapples with the task of
crafting a presentation about the Jewish holiday of Purim. His
description of the unintended consequences of a "no-screen"
weekend, as he and another father try to wean their sons from
computers and video games, is hilarious. And few readers will be
able to stifle the urge to "LOL" as fortysomething Gopnik is
initiated by his son into the world of instant messaging.

Gopnik also proves himself an erudite companion as he discourses on
such subjects as the decline of the New York department store, the
revival of Times Square and the story behind the Bill Evans Trio
jazz classic, "Sunday at the Village Vanguard." While the
collection is decidedly Manhattan-centric, he does leave the island
briefly to introduce readers to the bizarre phenomenon of the wild
parrots of Flatbush.

Not every essay in the book hits the mark. "The Cooking Game," a
description of a contest in which several prominent chefs prepare a
meal with ingredients selected by Gopnik, suffers from an
uncharacteristically narrow focus. "Death of a Fish" treads
perilously close to the line of undue sentimentality. Yet these
minor stumbles are more than offset by "Last of the Metrozoids,"
the understated and moving account of the death of Kirk Varnedoe,
Gopnik's close friend and a noted art historian, as he delivers his
final lectures and coaches, painstakingly and lovingly, Luke and
his eight-year-old teammates on the Giant Metrozoids football
team.

Like all accomplished essayists, Adam Gopnik excels in moving
seamlessly from the particular to the universal and back again. New
York is too multifaceted a place to be captured in any single work,
but THROUGH THE CHILDREN'S GATE is a generous and warmhearted place
to start.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on January 23, 2011

Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York
by Adam Gopnik

  • Publication Date: October 10, 2006
  • Genres: Essays
  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf
  • ISBN-10: 1400041813
  • ISBN-13: 9781400041817