A review of Lily Brett’s New York

Reviewed by Madalena Ball

New York
by Lily Brett
Paperback: 156 pages, Jan 2001, ISBN-13: 978-0330362450

Lily Brett’s New York is a lighthearted, easy to read book which looks at life in New York from the perspective of an Australian who has been living in Manhatten for over ten years. As an ex-New Yorker myself, I enjoyed reading the short and pointed vignettes which were more like a regular newspaper column (and indeed they were originally commissioned and published by Die Zeit, a popular German newspaper) than like a cumulative series of stories on life in the Big Apple. Most of the pieces are quietly humorous, and touch on current affair topics such as the fear of germs, the cult of youthfulness, fear of getting fat, life in a Co-Op, visiting the Hamptons during the summer, matchmaking, Monica Lewinsky’s impact on acceptable body weight, the cult of busy-ness, Fergie’s hair, and other such subjects which would likely find their way into the average New York City dinner party. These stories did give me a feel for the issues affecting the average New Yorker as well a sense of the smell, colours, changes and day to day life in New York City (as an ex-New Yorker myself, they did sometimes provoke homesickness), but as is generally the case with Brett’s work, the pieces are personal, and touch on issues which are, at times, particular to her. Her feelings about motherhood, for example, in “Children” are likely to provoke those who feel that the intellectual challenges and rewards of parenting lead to more than a “pumpkin pulp” of brains, or that many people do know how to grow vegetables (“Food”), and get more out of home-grown produce than the earth which hides inside the celery sticks, even if the average New Yorker would concur. Or even that men are prized and women underrated (“A Man”).

I also found myself wanting more out of each essay. Just as I’d been hooked in, the essay would end, sometimes abruptly, and leave me hungry for more detail, more information, more depth on the subject. I kept hoping for something more profound. However, perhaps there was no need to look so hard for profundity. These short pieces are not meant to be profound or to add up to any great meaning. They are just a lighthearted look at some of the mores of a city which, according to Brett, intrudes totally into the lives of its inhabitants, taking on the persona of another person. Taken in the same vein as a read of Dave Barry’s weekly column, or a book of Clive James’ essays, or something by Peter Mayle, the essays in New York provided a nice break in the intensity of the novels I usually read, and for Lily Brett, perhaps a break in the intensity of the novels she usually writes. A little light humour from someone whose own relationship with the city she now lives in has become the same as the 17.5 million other New Yorkers, a love hate affair which leaves her missing the place as soon as she activates her burglar alarm and double locks her front door.

About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of the novels Black Cow and Sleep Before Evening, the poetry books Repulsion Thrust and Quark Soup, a nonfiction book The Art of Assessment, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Deeper Into the Pond, Blooming Red, Cherished Pulse, She Wore Emerald Then, and Imagining the Future. She also runs a radio show, The Compulsive Reader Talks. Find out more about Magdalena at www.magdalenaball.com.