When I was a teenager, my mother took me on my first trip to New York City. We did all the usual touristy things — shopped on Fifth Avenue, walked through Central Park, and went to the top of the Empire State Building. What made the biggest impression on me, though, was visiting relatives who lived in an apartment building on the Upper East Side. We walked around their neighborhood together, and everywhere we went someone greeted Mary and John by name. They stopped to chat with friends, neighbors, shopkeepers, and doormen. “You see?” I remember Mary saying. “It’s no different from living in a small town.”
Joanna Clapps Herman’s lovely collection of linked short stories, No Longer and Not Yet, drives my cousin Mary’s point home again and again. The characters in the stories live within a few blocks of each other on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They are connected to each other the same way people in any community are connected to each other. They fall in love, raise children, make friends, mourn the loss of family members, struggle with career decisions.
The hand-drawn map in the beginning of the book shows the important landmarks in the characters’ lives — the schools, parks, and shops they visit almost every day. Beyond the Hudson River and the Atlantic Ocean are “other places”. The opening story in the collection, “Roman Bath”, takes place in Italy, where Max and Tess are beginning their marriage. The reader doesn’t yet know anything about the couple, except that they have recently been married and they are traveling in Italy. The story succeeds on its own, but also functions as an introduction to two key characters in No Longer and Not Yet. In subsequent stories, Max and Tess negotiate marriage, parenthood, and the ups and downs of life. Despite their differences in temperament, they share a deep and abiding bond:
Max, the husband, opened. Tess, the wife, closed. Max spilled, dropped, stirred. Tess, wiped, picked up, quieted. He flung, scattered, cast off. She caught, held, fastened. He set sail; she harbored Max got up early, opened cupboards, drawers, left them where they landed . . . He got their son, Paul, up and out of the house in the morning, brought Tess a cup of coffee in bed. He started the day going . . . She stayed up late, turned off all the lights, made sure Paul was in the vicinity of his bed, pulled the blankets up around Max’s shoulders. She brought the day home.
Some of the stories in the collection are very short — vignettes, really. Others are much longer and stand alone as short stories, with individual plots. I particularly enjoyed “Two Latins”, about a young mother’s conflict with her daughter’s preschool teacher, and “Passing History”, about a young man’s friendship with an elderly woman in his building. (The building happens to be the former residence of Hannah Arendt.)
I’m a fan of short stories (in fact, I wrote a blog post about my love of short stories: 5 Reasons to Read Short Stories), but I think even readers who claim they don’t like short stories would like No Longer and Not Yet. Although there isn’t an overarching narrative, the characters develop throughout the linked stories. In that way, the book reminded me of Olive Kitteridge and A Visit From the Goon Squad. I also thought the book was reminiscent of Cheryl Mendelson’s wonderful trilogy about the Upper West Side — Morningside Heights, Anything for Jane, and Love, Work, Children.
Joanna Clapps Herman, a resident of New York City, is a creative writing professor at the MFA Graduate Program at Manhattanville College and at the Center for Worker Education, a division of City College of New York, CUNY. When asked what she’d like readers to take away from their experience of reading No Longer and Not Yet, she says:
I’d love for people to be interested in what my characters are facing. I’d like them to feel as if they are walking around in a place that interests them. I’d like them to feel moved by my language when I’m turning it on and trying to make something beautiful or emotional.
Herman’s “Ideal reader” is “anyone who loves to read about ordinary people, especially people who like to read about raising children”.
I reviewed No Longer and Not Yet for TLC Book Tours. Please check out the other stops on the tour!