Following the success of her first novel, Household Words (1980), which received critical praise for its delicate observation of everyday events and relationships (it also won the Ernest Hemingway Award), Joan Silber’s In the City continues in the same vein. It is a coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s first taste of independence and the adult world—in this case the artistic and literary set of 1920’s Manhattan. Silber has commented on her novel: “I identified with that sense of starting out at a certain age—thinking you know what’s going on and slowly realizing you don’t.” With an accurate and subtle skill, Silber captures the sensibilities of her young protagonist, who is at once self-assured and highly vulnerable.
Anticipating her high school graduation six months hence, seventeen-year-old Pauline Samuels is the daughter of first-generation Russian-Jewish immigrants. Her parents own a haberdashery in Newark, but Pauline does not get on with her taciturn father, and the narrow horizons of her mother are too limited to be of any help to her. Sufficiently intelligent and educated to choose to read Charles Baudelaire in French, Pauline wins the school prize for her essay on Lord Byron. She has earnest philosophical conversations with her chum Bunny, and she also has a high school sweetheart, with whom she is just beginning to explore her sexuality.
Sex for her is an infinitely enticing world of pure sensations which, she assumes, somehow contain the ultimate human experience. The innocent expectancy of youthful sexual awareness pervades the early part of the novel, and her three major sexual encounters reveal and reflect her growing maturity. First, while running an errand for her father in New York, she is partially seduced by a casual acquaintance who promises her work as a designer’s model. Never suspecting that his story is untrue, she responds to him at first because she does not want to be thought timid, even though she does not like him or find him attractive. It is an awakening of a kind; it constitutes the first mark of her separation from the world of innocent youth and from her parents. The experience leads her, for example, to think that she now understands the world (“This went on all the time; the world was full of this”) in ways that her parents do not. She tends always to think of herself as advanced and initiated.
When she leaves school, she becomes a file clerk for a ribbon manufacturer in New York and rents a bare, mildewed room in Manhattan. The work is unchallenging, and her social life is at first meager, amounting to cheap meals with her cousin Beatrice. She spends many evenings in her room or at the movies alone. Life warms up for her when she and Beatrice go to Vera’s, a restaurant frequented by Bohemians, where she gets her first exposure to smart, artistic company. Pauline can well hold her own in the self-consciously clever and witty conversations in which she now finds herself taking part. Irony and a brand of playful sarcasm come naturally to her—just the sort of thing to make her accepted in her rather shallow new company. She develops a close friendship with Nita, an outspoken and self-confident young blonde who plays the violin in an all-women’s orchestra, and with Walter Mickeling, an eccentric painter who hums arias to himself when drunk and professes to have a low opinion of women.
It is through this set that she meets her first lover, Dewey Franklin. Dewey works as a court reporter but also calls himself a writer. Pauline allows herself gradually to be drawn into a close relationship with him, even though she does not particularly like him: She is pleased to be getting involved with someone, and a little proud of how inexplicable their partnership appears to others. Eventually, she moves into his apartment. She does not, however, have the experience with which to evaluate the dangers of taking such a step. Her intellectual maturity is far ahead of her emotional maturity, and she fails to take notice of some early warning signs, such as Dewey’s selfishness and his childish tantrums.
After a period of tranquillity, the relationship rapidly deteriorates. Dewey fails to finish any of his writing projects (Pauline never sees anything he has written, and she is rather glad of it). He spends an increasing amount of time loafing around the house, complaining about his friends, and behaving boorishly toward her. Events come to a head when he swindles a friend over the funding of a literary...
(The entire section is 1852 words.)