At home in the big city
For Adam Gopnik, as both writer and dad, there is no better spot than New York.
When Adam Gopnik was a young man first living in New York City, he had an experience that now belongs to the annals of history: He underwent psychoanalysis with a true German-born Freudian. "It may be worth recalling," Gopnik writes, "if only in the way that it would be interesting to hear the experiences of the last man mesmerized or the last man to be bled with leeches."Skip to next paragraph
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It was probably, Gopnik notes, one of the least successful psychoanalyses ever attempted. It seems that the most he ever got from his 80-something mental health practitioner were restaurant recommendations for a trip to Venice and statements of the doctor's admiration of various celebrities. ("She is very well defended," he would say admiringly of someone like Susan Sontag.)
In Gopnik's hands, however, this experience becomes an essay that is ultimately as sad and tender as it is funny, concluding with a final summation from the good German doctor: "So you see, Adam, in retrospect, life has many worthwhile aspects."
The same might be said of Gopnik's delightful Through the Children's Gate, a collection of essays (several of which were previously published in The New Yorker) dealing with life in New York City, and most particularly with the experience of raising children there. The essays touch on many of the more worthwhile aspects of life (home, family, friendship, the small pleasures of daily life in a city that you love.) You don't have to be a New Yorker or even necessarily an enthusiast of the city to be alternately amused, touched, and charmed by Gopnik's well-crafted pieces.
As a writer for The New Yorker, Gopnik left New York for Paris for five years (and wrote the wonderful "Paris to the Moon" about those experiences). But as his children grew to school age, both Gopnik and his wife felt a desire to return home and so in 2000 they landed back in New York and set about looking for a home for their young family.
The essay "A Hazard of No Fortune" wrings the requisite amount of humor out of the search for a habitable space in New York. Gopnik notes that looking for an apartment in New York is "potentially fatal, like scaling Everest." Adding an interesting literary twist to what seems to be an entirely contemporary real estate horror story, Gopnik harks back to the forgotten "A Hazard of New Fortunes," a William Dean Howells novel, to prove that looking for an apartment in New York was every bit as traumatic over a century ago as it is today.
In the book's title essay, Gopnik devotes space to analyzing the new New York – a freshly suburbanized place where "it was now the drug addicts and transvestites and artists who were left muttering about the undesirable, short element taking over the neighborhood" – children.
But Gopnik and his family don't have long to enjoy this family-friendly version of Gotham before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 cast a pall over their lives. Gopnik writes of the day of the attacks and the aftermath in several of the essays, but really from thereon in, "Through the Children's Gate" – at least, the best of it – is about the fragility of all that we love most, including childhood, friendship, and, in Gopnik's case, New York City itself.