“We came to the city because we wished to live haphazardly, to reach for only the least realistic of our desires, and to see if we could not learn what our failures had to teach, and not, when we came to live, discover that we had never died,” writes Kristopher Jansma in the opening line of Why We Came to the City, a novel set in New York. That wonderful, Thoreau-inspired opening aside, the characters in Why We Came to the City remind me an awful lot of the television show Friends. Jansma creates a sort of bubble around the main characters that feels very Friends-like. But that bubble does not last. Though it does have its own humor at times, this often frustrating story is hardly a comedy.
The 20-something characters include Irene, an artist and an assistant at an art gallery; Jacob, a loud-mouthed, often obnoxious poet; George, an astronomer who secretly drinks too much; and his longtime girlfriend, soon-to-be-fiancee, Sara, who is the obvious glue that holds the group together. And then there is William, who finds himself thrust into this group of friends as he falls in love with Irene.
The characters all fit in their cocoon with their inside jokes, routine activities and seemingly constant connectedness, until the group is dealt a harsh shot of reality when Irene is diagnosed with cancer. Without a family for Irene to turn to, the friends take turns accompanying Irene to her myriad appointments and generally being there when needed. It is touching and symbolic (and sometimes a little too much).
Where Jansma’s writing shines is not in the scenes in which the group is together, but rather when the characters are by themselves with their own thoughts. That helps the reader dive into each character more deeply. For example, for a good chunk of the novel, I found Jacob’s character unlikable and annoying. But Jansma saves an extended section for Jacob in which his thoughts and vulnerabilities are revealed, and it ended up being my favorite part of the book. Together, the group is quirky and witty and smarter than everyone else, but apart, the individuals are more real. They are unsure of themselves. They question what they are doing with their lives. That contradiction between together and apart resonates strongly in Why We Came to the City.
While the bulk of the novel centers on Irene and her plight with cancer, it is William and Jacob who carry the novel. They are the ones Jansma spends the most time developing. Despite tragedy, Sara and George, the perfectly happy couple (who have their own issues), never have to question their future, at least together, in the face of tragedy. But the future is far more murky for Jacob and William, and Jansma shows off their respective depth in the second part of the novel, which opens again with homage to Thoreau as Jansma explains “Why We Left the City.” Jansma writes of a moment of understanding for William, “Sitting there [in someone else’s clothes], and his new hat and the scarf from Irene, he felt almost like another person entirely…. That was what Irene had learned. How to be someone new.”
Why We Came to the City is really about how a group of people move forward, or not, in the face of major adversity. How does the group change? Can it hold together? And was it all worth it?
Jansma creates a comforting bubble for these characters and then blows it up, leaving them off kilter and uncertain not just of themselves but of where they stand with each other and how they all fit together — and whether they do anymore. B-
— Jeff Mucciarone