SECRETS OF THE CITY

Anne Richardson Roiphe, Author . Crown/Shaye Areheart $24 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4000-4945-5

Originally published as a serial in the New York Jewish periodical the Forward , this latest novel by Roiphe (Lovingkindness , etc.) achieves an enviable sense of excitement and urgency, its concerns as fresh as today's news. In short chapters in which plot lines overlap and one problem arises as another is resolved, Mel Rosenberg, the Jewish mayor of a Gotham-like city that is never named, must contend with such problems as terrorist killings of the city's birds, the failure of the welfare system, the constant threat of an overstretched budget, the heartbreaking corruption of one of his friends and the deaths of some yeshiva students threatening to turn into an ethnic war. In the meantime, there are the troubles in the mayor's own family: his scientist daughter, Ina, struggles to love her husband, Sergei; Sergei's immigrant brother, Leonid, makes shady deals that threaten the family; Mel's uptight lawyer son, Jacob, wants to get his kids into a prestigious private school; Jacob's WASP wife, Brooke, develops a penchant for shoplifting and a yen for Leonid; and Mel himself, devoted to his wife, Ruth, finds himself pursued by an attractive journalist. Though the novel can sometimes seem Judeo-centric—Brooke and the corrupt official, the two significant non-Jewish characters, don't come off very well—Mel is a fundamentally decent, universally appealing character, and his folk solutions to the city's problems, along with the appearance of spirits like the "Imp of Mischief," occasionally give the novel the feel of a Jewish folk tale even as it deals with present-day issues. Roiphe's headlong, jumpy prose satisfyingly evokes the frantic, hilarious struggle of living in and maintaining a city of millions of separate souls. (Nov.)

Forecast: Roiphe's recent successes have been in nonfiction ( Fruitful: A Real Mother in the Modern World was a National Book Award nominee). This novel may attract a narrower audience—it is a thoroughly New York book—but it is a solid addition to Roiphe's body of work.

Reviewed on: 10/20/2003
Release date: 10/01/2003
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