National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author Ariel Sabar’s Heart of the City is high concept: nine stories of heterosexual married couples who initially met at some New York City landmark, eight in Manhattan plus the boat to and from the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor. Sabar leads with the best and most-long-ago meeting story, a meeting in Central Park in 1941.
Especially if read back-to-back, the rest seem not especially differentiated variations of a visitor to the city meeting a New York City resident, seeing him or her a few more times before leaving, eventually wedding ’til death did them part. The more recent meet-cute liaisons don’t reach ’til death, but there are no divorces, just as there are no gay or lesbian couples included.
A number of the stories, including the first one in which a sailor takes pity on a runaway girl he meets in Central Pak, made news as featured “human interest” stories in their day. Sabar provides follow-ups to the old news stories, awkwardly split between the stories of roughly twenty pages each and postscripts in the back of two or three pages.
Even after I slowed my reading to one at a time, my heart did not warm to repeated demands on it. My second favorite was the Empire State Building meeting, but it was followed by the one story that actively irritated me: not because of the meeting in Times Square, but for taking the Coen brothers’ movie “Fargo” as if it were an ethnography. Along with the Minnesota stereotypes in “Crossroads,” the same story has wisecracking NYPD stereotypes in abundance and milks 9/11. I have to admit that someone from the Fargo-Moorhead Metropolitan Statistical Area imagining that she could understand and comfort New Yorkers after a week’s visit is all too plausible a venture, so that it is the well-intentioned but oblivious Robin who makes me wince, not Sahar’s account of her mission.
Sabar imagines dialogue and what both future partners were feeling. Though he had their cooperation, these narratives with third-person omniscience, still constitute fictionalizing. There’s variety in occupations of the lovers, but something cookie-cutter about the stories. I like the one-page histories of the site that precedes each of the stories, and Sabar writes well. Perhaps if one were to read one story each Valentine’s Day, the eventual esteem for the book would be higher than mine was? Or maybe I am as hard-hearted as New Yorkers are widely supposed to be and the stories are too sweet for me, though I grew up in rural Minnesota (near the southern, not western border)
Journalist Sabar’s first, award-winning book, My Father’s Paradise, is a memoir/biography of his father… who met the author’s mother in Washington Square Park. An aumnus of Brown University, he is starting his East Coast book tour next month in Providence, Rhode Island.