Heart of the City
Nine New York love stories: Can a city be a matchmaker?
My parents, who recently celebrated their 62nd anniversary, met on the Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, elevated subway platform in 1948. They were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, and my father, a brash, brainy 20-year-old, managed to snag the seat next to my pretty mother for their long commute up to the Washington Heights campus of New York University. Well before they reached their destination, he’d arranged their first date.Skip to next paragraph
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In Heart of the City, Ariel Sabar, whose parents met in Washington Square Park on Labor Day, 1966, chronicles nine love stories that began with chance encounters at various New York City landmarks. He wonders, “Could a vibrant public space, in some subtle but essential way, play matchmaker?”
Sabar won a National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography for his first book, “My Father’s Paradise” (2008), about his father’s journey from Kurdish Iraq to Los Angeles. As he acknowledges, “Heart of the City” is a much lighter undertaking. He attempts to extract deeper meaning from his tales of serendipitous love by exploring the work of various environmental psychologists concerning the possible “nexus between passion and place, between architecture and attraction.” But his long introduction feels like the blood test required for a marriage license, more hurdle than pleasure.
The stories themselves, which range from the 1940s to the present, are sweet and charming, if unabashedly sentimental. Most of them hinge not just on an openness to new experience, but a trust in strangers or a willingness to help a lost soul. Several of the couples make an initial connection only to nearly lose each other forever. All of the relationships he chooses to chronicle are heterosexual and enduring.
When judged by literary standards, Sabar’s narratives, to which he’s added imagined dialogue and enhanced details to fill in the blanks, are hokey and oversimplistic. Their power lies in their factuality, which Sabar only belatedly underscores in a final chapter called “Postscripts,” where he relates what became of each couple and how he came upon their story. This material, along with his more theoretical concerns, would have been more effective incorporated into the stories.