Novel New York

Jessica Allen

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Every novel takes you somewhere. That's part of the magic of books—they carry you freely to locations throughout the vast reaches of time and space, all as you sit comfortably in your chair. When it comes to New York City, many writers draw inspiration from what can actually be seen or experienced, and their books become maps we can use to explore the City, searching for traces of the narratives, the settings that influenced their authors and where characters had their epiphanies—or disappointments. In this slideshow, we tour different neighborhoods and eras through the pages of 10 popular novels set in NYC. You’ll visit City institutions such as The Met and the American Museum of Natural History, where crucial scenes played out. You'll hit great food destinations, like Harlem for red velvet cake and Flushing for Korean barbecue. And while you won't find Holden Caulfield sipping a malted next to you at the Grand Central Oyster Bar, Patrick Bateman heading out to return videotapes while you head into Indochine or Newland Archer hurrying past as you gape at the mansions along Fifth Avenue, you just might discover the spirits of these literary characters—and how NYC continues to stimulate the imaginations of readers and writers alike. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art photo by Marley White • “The Goldfinch” (2013), by Donna Tartt courtesy Little, Brown and Company

The Goldfinch
Any itinerary based on Donna Tartt's best-selling novel must begin at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the life of her young protagonist, Theo Decker, changes forever. Of course, you could spend hours here, at one of the largest museums in the world, or you could concentrate on the European paintings on the second floor—where, in the novel, Decker winds up stealing Carel Fabritius' The Goldfinch. (Alas, you won't find the painting there in real life, since it hangs at Mauritshuis museum in The Hague when it's not traveling on temporary loan.) Theo and his mother live on East 57th Street, and Theo resides for a time on Park Avenue in the Upper East Side, so completists might want to stroll along those residential blocks. Otherwise, take the subway to the main branch of the New York Public Library, where Tartt researched and wrote chunks of the novel in the Allen Room (which is only accessible to writers with publishing contracts). Back on the subway, get out in Greenwich Village and stop for a meal at Elephant & Castle, a New American restaurant where Theo ate with his mom. Spend some time meandering along West 10th Street, but don't bother looking for the antiques store where Theo lives with the kooky Hobie (the store's proprietor) and his beautiful ward—it doesn't exist. Last but not least, celebrate the reunion of Theo and his old friend Boris at a Polish bar on Second Avenue by grabbing a drink or bowl of borscht at Little Poland (200 Second Ave., between 12th and 13th Sts., 212-777-9728).

The Pond in Central Park. Photo: Julienne Schaer

The Catcher in the Rye
Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has influenced generations of teenagers, who see in Holden Caulfield a reflection of their own struggles with identity, sexuality, angst and just plain ol' growing up. To experience the world through Holden's eyes, begin at the Pond in Central Park, contemplating, as Holden did, where the ducks go during winter (answer: they generally stay right where they are, sometimes huddling together for warmth). Continue musing as you make your way to the Central Park Zoo, to which Holden's sister follows him, and afterward the carousel, where Holden finds joy watching his younger sister ride. You might find a similar rapture gawking at the zoo's frolicking monkeys or the cavorting sea lions. From this crossroads, you have a few choices: you can head south to catch a show or tour at Radio City Music Hall, where Holden kills time watching the Rockettes perform and then stays for a movie, or you can cross the park and move north to the American Museum of Natural History, where Holden wanders around and reminisces about his childhood. Midtown no longer boasts the cheap drugstores at which Holden scarfs down many swiss cheese sandwiches and malted milks, but you can eat in fine style at the newly refurbished Grand Central Oyster Bar, the restaurant near where Holden chats up some nuns over breakfast and, later, spends the night. 

The Frick Collection photo by Michael Bodycomb • “The Age of Innocence” (1920), by Edith Wharton courtesy Penguin Group USA

The Age of Innocence
This Pulitzer Prize–winning classic by Edith Wharton imagines life in New York in the 1870s—the Gilded Age of huge fortunes and even huger aspirations. Beginning around that time and continuing into the early 20th century, when Wharton wrote her novel, America's wealthiest tycoons built their mansions along Fifth Avenue, the so-called Millionaires' Row on the Upper East Side. Perhaps none of the residences is so splendid as the Henry Clay Frick House, built at a cost of $5 million and requiring a staff of almost 30 servants, and home today to the Frick Collection, which focuses on European paintings and sculpture. Allegedly, Frick wanted his house to outshine that of his business nemesis, Andrew Carnegie, up the street. (Carnegie, in turn, boasted that he earned the money to build his house after outsmarting Frick in a deal.) Now the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Carnegie's block-long mansion originally contained 64 rooms, many of which overlooked a lushly landscaped garden. (The museum is currently being renovated, with a planned reopening for late 2014.) Well south of here, on Madison Avenue, the Morgan Library & Museum has preserved the literary collection of Pierpont Morgan in the financier's original rooms. These domiciles give some sense of the opulence and luxury that Wharton both lived in and critiqued. Conclude your Gilded Age explorations with yet another museum: the Museum of the City of New York, back uptown, has an ongoing exhibition showcasing the period through portraits, jewelry and decorative objects.  

The Brooklyn Inn photo by Kate Glicksberg • “Motherless Brooklyn” (1999), by Jonathan Lethem courtesy Vintage Books

Motherless Brooklyn
To find the neighborhoods of this novel about a tough-talking, tic-addled detective struggling with Tourette's—a character by the name of Lionel Essrog—you have to look past hipster Brooklyn. Indeed, you might have to become a bit of a detective yourself. Case in point: up-and-coming Gowanus just got a huge Whole Foods; in contrast, in the book, set in the 1980s, one character quips that the eponymous canal is “the only body of water in the world . . . that's 90 percent guns.” To tune in to the Motherless Brooklyn mojo, you can't go wrong with an amble down Court Street, the center of Lionel's universe, where he spends his adolescence getting involved with a small-time mobster. Depending on the time of day, you might buy an overstuffed sandwich at Court Street Grocers, the spaghetti and meatballs at Brucie, or the pappardelle with braised lamb at Frankies 457 Spuntino, a restaurant that was once an Italian social club. Save room for a slice, and eat it in true NYC style: trash the paper plate, fold the pizza in half and gobble it as you hurry down the street. Don't forget to stop in at BookCourt to see if they have Lethem's latest on the shelves (they almost certainly will). When night falls, walk to the Brooklyn Inn, a dark, dusty, yet welcoming tavern that features prominently in both the book and in the Harvey Keitel vehicle Smoke

Sylvia’s photo by Clayton Cotterell • “Jazz” (1992), by Toni Morrison courtesy Vintage Books

Jazz
The Harlem of the 2010s more closely matches the Harlem portrayed in Toni Morrison's Jazz than at any other point in the 20th or 21st centuries. The neighborhood is once again as full of verve, evidenced by popular restaurants and nightclubs, as it was during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. If you want to get a sense of the neighborhood's past, book a table at Sylvia's, a family-run institution known for its soul food. Make My Cake offers a dessert that encapsulates New York and the American South: red velvet cheesecake (the straightforward red velvet cake's pretty good too, as is the sweet potato cheesecake). Among the area's more contemporary destination restaurants are Red Rooster, The Cecil and ABV. Modeled on the speakeasies of the 1920s, Ginny's Super Club features food and live performances (book ahead, especially for the gospel brunch on Sundays). For an academic take on the music behind Morrison's novel, visit the National Jazz Museum, where you can chat with expert docents, many of whom have lived in Harlem for decades. If it's live jazz you're after, wait for the sun to set and then head to such venues as Minton's, where bebop was born, American Legion Post #398, for the Sunday night jam sessions, or the legendary Lenox Lounge, reopening in late summer 2014 a few blocks away from its former location.  

National September 11 Memorial photo by Marley White • “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” (2005), by Jonathan Safran Foer courtesy Houghton Mifflin Company

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close 
Some readers consider Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to be the best novel written about 9/11 (thus far). In this work by Jonathan Safran Foer, 9-year-old Oskar Schell roams around NYC, armed with a key that supposedly belonged to his father, who died in the collapse of the Twin Towers. The traces of that time remain a palpable presence in NYC. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum opens on May 21, but in the meantime, you can reserve a free pass to visit the 9/11 Memorial. You're encouraged to leave mementos at either the memorial's pools or near the names of the deceased inscribed in bronze. You might also consider spending a few hours at the 9/11 Tribute Center, whose guides, including first responders, residents and survivors, witnessed the tragedy, or you might continue paying homage to the fallen at the Memorial Wall at FDNY Engine 10 Ladder 10, dedicated to firefighters who died that day. Nearby is St. Paul's Chapel, Manhattan's oldest surviving church, which suffered no damage despite the catastrophe that occurred in such close proximity. A relief center operated around the clock at the church for eight months following 9/11, and you can see some memorabilia there from that period. 

“Forever” (2003), Pete Hamill • The Woolworth Building photo by Marley White

Forever
In this novel by Pete Hamill, the fate of the main character and the city he inhabits are utterly intertwined: Cormac O'Connor can live forever if and only if he never leaves the island of Manhattan. Through his eyes, New York changes from a provincial backwater (he arrives in 1740) into the indefatigable juggernaut of 2001. The character's first residence is located on Cortlandt Street, the future site of the World Trade Center. Later, he helps construct the Woolworth Building, which was the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930. Speaking of lofty steel structures, you can learn about the evolution of the skyscraper at the aptly named Skyscraper Museum. If you'd rather hang out where the greats once dined, grab a seat at Fraunces Tavern, where George Washington held many a banquet and even gave a farewell address to his troops in 1783. Since the novel explores the role of indentured Irish and African slaves in the United States, you should be sure to visit the African Burial Ground National Monument, which preserves the remains of more than 400 Africans who were buried there in the 17th and 18th centuries.  

“Brookland” (2006), by Emily Barton courtesy Picador • The Brooklyn Museum photo by Adam Husted

Brookland
No matter how often you've done it, strolling across the Brooklyn Bridge still has the power to captivate—in fact, this very activity offers the perfect antidote to New York City cynicism. Emily Barton's historical novel takes readers back to a time when Dutch was still widely spoken here, British soldiers were garrisoned in what was then known as “Brookland” and the only way to cross the East River was by boat (or by gliding across the ice). To get a sense of this past, spend some time examining Francis Guy's painting Winter Scene in Brooklyn (1819–20) at the Brooklyn Museum. Then, to honor the protagonist's dream of bridging Brooklyn and Manhattan, make your way to DUMBO and wander around Brooklyn Bridge Park's 85 waterfront acres. To preserve an image of the bridge, head to the intersection of Washington and Front Streets for an awesome photo op. Finish your day by stopping at the dignified River Café for a multicourse meal or just a gin (as fans of the book know, Barton goes into extensive detail about the distillation of this particular alcohol). As the Manhattan skyline starts to twinkle, you'll be forgiven for thinking that the borough across the water really does belong to another, more magical world.  

Wall Street photo by Will Steacy • “American Psycho” (1991), by Bret Easton Ellis courtesy Vintage Books

American Psycho
Regardless of what you think about Bret Easton Ellis's polarizing account of a yuppie serial killer, American Psycho portrays a New York as iconic and recognizable as Gucci loafers and Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses. Although many of the places Ellis described have disappeared (indeed, the bar 150 Wooster, where the novelist himself hung out in the 1980s, is now a high-end stroller store), the moneyed world inhabited by Patrick Bateman and his cronies lives on. Begin your explorations on Wall Street, where Bateman works as an investment banker. While you can no longer visit the New York Stock Exchange, you can tour the New York branch of the Federal Reserve, the central bank of the United States, to witness capitalism's core. Spend the remainder of the afternoon on Fifth Avenue, giving your AmEx a workout at such stores as Bottega Veneta and Bergdorf Goodman, home to Bateman's favorite brands like Clinique and Armani. Unless you went to Harvard like Patrick, or know someone who did, you won't be able to get into the Harvard Club, where the character eats and exercises. You can, however, make a reservation at Indochine or at Harry's Café and Steak. Don't forget to load up your iPod with songs by Huey Lewis and the News.

“Native Son” (1995), by Chang-Rae Lee courtesy Riverhead Books • Flushing photo by Will Steacy

Native Speaker
Through the story of would-be spy Henry Park, a Korean-American trying to assimilate and become a “native speaker,” Chang-rae Lee zeroes in on Flushing. More than 60 percent of the residents of this Queens neighborhood were born outside of the United States, generally somewhere in Asia, and the immigrant experience on evidence is as multifaceted as in the pages of Lee's novel. Begin, as Park does, by cruising along Main Street, admiring the street's diversity, in terms of people and produce. Let the sounds and smells stimulate your appetite, for this is one of the City's best areas for eating. When you can no longer ignore the rumblings of your belly, visit Tai Pan Bakery, known for its selection of goodies like egg tarts and buns stuffed with pineapple or coconut. For traditional Korean fare, try the stews and seasonal vegetables at Joo Mak Gol, within walking distance of Main Street. Or hop a bus along Northern Boulevard to Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong. At this first NYC outpost of a Seoul-based chain owned by a beloved comedian and former wrestler, you can try Korean barbecue, in which you cook your proteins and veggies tableside over a low flame. Memorialize Park by discreetly peering over your menu to check out what other diners are ordering. 


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