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Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York


Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York

edited by Sari Botton

In Rachel Syme's contribution to NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE, an essay about her childhood fascination with the Empire State Building, she recounts a conversation she had with a friend. “What am I building in New York?” he wonders. It's a tough question, but Syme's answer gets to the heart of what so many people find alluring about the city. “In New York,” she writes, “you are demanded to build yourself.”

That idea --- that New York is a place you go to create yourself --- underpins many of the 27 essays in this collection edited by Sari Botton. It's a companion to, as well as an apology for, last year’s GOODBYE TO ALL THAT: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, also edited by Botton. Some assumed that book (inspired by Joan Didion's essay of the same name) “contained 28 anti-city screeds” when it was really “more like a collection of love letters” from female writers to the city that shaped them.

This time around, Botton and her compatriots make their love for the city clear. The scope has been broadened to include male writers such as Phillip Lopate and Stephen Elliott, as well as prominent voices outside the literary world, including Whoopi Goldberg and Rosanne Cash, whose meditations on how moving to New York helped her redefine herself during a time of personal and professional crisis kicks things off. It’s a thoughtful reflection on both a changing city and a changing life, but the essays that follow are a mixed bag.

"Ultimately, NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE suggests that it's easier to fall in love with New York than it is to explain the reason for that love."

While Cash, who came to New York later in life, and Lopate, who fills the role of blunt-talking native, offer fresh perspectives on the city, too many contributors cover terrain well-trod by other writers. Many follow the formula laid out in Didion's influential essay. A young person moves to New York and is overwhelmed but also enamored by the city. They encounter personal and professional challenges, and consider moving elsewhere. (Sometimes they do.) But whether they stay or go, living in New York has allowed them to discover something about themselves.

Unfortunately, not all of these discoveries are particularly compelling, and a superficial gloss on the New York experience pervades much of NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE. There’s more to America's largest metropolis than the impressions of starry-eyed outsiders, and it’s not reflected here frequently enough. Take Jason Diamond, whose essay “Stay Hungry” is a tedious lamentabout his favorite shuttered restaurants, though he admits that the city's vibrant culinary scene gives him hope. When he writes that “All the new bars and restaurants help keep me focused on moving forward,” he reduces New York to nothing more than a trendy, ever-changing food court.

“[I]f you're not careful, you can spend, and waste, a lot of your time in this actual city, especially when you first arrive, scrambling after your idea of New York,” observes Adam Sternbergh as he considers how an idea of “New York,” whether born from repeated viewings of Woody Allen movies or episodes of “Sex and the City,” shapes the experience of transplants. Yet his list of things that he loves about the city reveals little about New York or how he really feels about living there: he likes looking at the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center, and enjoys seeing Meryl Streep performing Mother Courage in Central Park. All three may be quintessentially “New York” experiences, but highlighting them barely scratches the surface of what makes the city great. 

Fortunately, other writers probe deeper. Anna Holmes writes movingly of her struggle with depression and how an unusual purchase for a New Yorker --- a car, bought with the idea that she would use it to escape back to California --- allowed her to explore less familiar corners of the city and “provided me an abandon I hadn't experienced in a long time.” Adelle Waldman reflects on how life as a professionally dissatisfied freelancer left her lonely and isolated, until she moved to a new neighborhood, where she discovered both community and creative inspiration. It’s an amusing and honest look at how hard it can be to live in New York, as well as the endless possibilities for reinvention the city offers.

Some contributors take a narrower view, their snapshots of city life offering a glimpse of the essence of New York. Susan Orlean's curiosity about Manhattan's numerous papaya outposts (Gray's Papaya, Papaya King, Papaya Kingdom) eventually teaches her something about how the city works, while Colin Harrison writes about his collection of New York City maps, which offer a record of a city that “has been lost to all living memory.”

Ultimately, NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE suggests that it's easier to fall in love with New York than it is to explain the reason for that love. Anyone who has fallen head-over-heels for New York themselves may find a bit of the city's romance reflected in these essays. Others may be left wondering what all the fuss is about.

Reviewed by Megan Elliott on October 31, 2014

Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York
edited by Sari Botton

  • Publication Date: October 14, 2014
  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • ISBN-10: 147678440X
  • ISBN-13: 9781476784403