'If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter," the Roman orator once famously apologized. No need for such regrets from Rebecca Lee, author of The City Is a Rising Tide. Lee says it took her 10 years to finish polishing this slender gem of a novel (her first – previously she has published only shorter pieces). I'm not surprised. Putting so smooth a sheen on the 197 pages of lovely, liquid prose on display here could hardly be the work of a moment.
I say "liquid" not because the writing is soft or languid. On the contrary, Lee's voice is what you might get if you filtered sly chick lit through the lens of a darker and more poetic perception.
Rather, "liquid" because Lee seems particularly attuned to bodies of water. "From our office, Peter and I could see the Hudson River, which, like all of us who had arrived in the city from the countryside, was just trying to look beautiful and cool, flashing alongside the city streets," this novel begins.
The "I" of the book is Justine Laxness, the 37-year-old daughter of former Christian missionaries. Not, however, the missionaries of stereotype – these hipper folk live in an art-filled apartment in a smart Manhattan enclave and were so open-minded in their ministry that they always ended up converting to the local religion.
When Justine was a child, they lived in China, which is where she got to know Peter. Peter, then a diplomat of sorts, was the lover of Justine's Chinese nanny, a devoted young Maoist who fell victim to the Cultural Revolution.
Peter is a good many years Justine's senior and still treats her like the child she once was. And yet she cherishes for him a hopeless, unrequited love.
Unfortunately, she now also works for him. The two share that office high above the flashing waters of the Hudson, where they toil futilely, planning an ethereal and doomed not-for-profit "healing center," slated to be built on a piece of land in China that will soon be flooded by the Yangtze River.
Meanwhile, reentering Justine's life is James, a friend from her undergraduate days at Harvard, now working on a Hollywood film about genetically altered wheat bred to produce self-confidence.
But if it sounds as if all things in this novel are doomed – and they probably are – don't expect too terribly dark a work. Like Manhattan itself, Lee infuses the daily lives of her characters with glitter, breezy cool, and sharp-edged wit.
Justine is darkly humorous as she attends obligatory upscale charity events ("The party evoked something biblical, with enormous bowls of figs and olives, and a silent agreement among many of the women that they wear sheathlike garments and hammered-metal jewelry") and deals with obnoxious associates (likeable only when "sleep in its mercy pull[s] the plug on their personalities.")
She's hooked on Peter but not above Bridget Jones-like observations of other men. (When she dines at a trendy restaurant with an attorney threatening to sue her, she imagines it's a bit like a date. She views her best friend's amiable, bearlike spouse and notes: "He was a whole different take on a husband, and I'd actually seen the light dawn in woman's eyes when they met him – this was a direction they hadn't thought to take.")
In the end, however, Justine is a soul so lost that when she commits a felony she casts herself as a biblical heroine ("And how about the woman who poured wine on Jesus' feet while outside the poor begged for food? Wasn't she praised in the end for her devotion, her recklessness?")
But if Justine's downfall hurtles at us with the abrupt speed of a taxi accident – and it does – the sad poetry that undergirds this story is her search for the beauty underneath glittering surfaces.
New York City is Justine's true love and, rather like Walt Whitman, Lee never lets us forget what a miracle the city is – bounded by sparkling rivers, sea, and fish, and inhabited by bustling people who live and work in holes placed high in the air and who zip from place to place through stone tunnels deep in the ground.
Such wonder is the source of Justine's joy and also of her pain. "To this day, I'll be walking someplace beautiful, down to the Battery maybe, or up along the park, along its bright southern edge, and a flock of birds will soar suddenly up the street, and the breeze will lift so that the leaves tear themselves free from the trees ... and nature will appear to be at one with the city, and there will come to me an overwhelming, nearly frightening feeling for the beauty of life...."
As readers we can feel that beauty but like Justine we can't quite touch it. Like the Hudson itself, its shiny surface hides something darker. And like rivers everywhere, any brief happiness of Justine's is a tide certain to quickly recede – and yet still quite lovely to behold.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.