Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • The Good People of New York
  • Written by Thisbe Nissen
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780385720618
  • Our Price: $13.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - The Good People of New York

Buy now from Random House

  • The Good People of New York
  • Written by Thisbe Nissen
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780375413476
  • Our Price: $9.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - The Good People of New York

The Good People of New York

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

Written by Thisbe NissenAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Thisbe Nissen

eBook

List Price: $9.99

eBook

On Sale: June 19, 2001
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-375-41347-6
Published by : Anchor Knopf
The Good People of New York Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - The Good People of New York
  • Email this page - The Good People of New York
  • Print this page - The Good People of New York
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE & AWARDS PRAISE & AWARDS
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
Tags for this book (powered by Library Thing)
fiction (25) novel (6) new york (6)
fiction (25) novel (6) new york (6)
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

When Roz Rosenzweig meets Edwin Anderson fumbling for keys on the stoop of a Manhattan walk-up, the last thing on her mind is falling for a polite Nebraskan–yet fall for him she does. So begins Thisbe Nissen’s breathtaking debut novel, a decidedly urban fairy tale that follows Roz and Edwin as they move from improbable courtship to marriage to the birth of daughter Miranda–the locus of all Roz’s attention, anxiety, and often smothering affection.
As Miranda comes of age and begins to chafe against the intensity of her mother’s neurotic love, Roz must do her best to let those she cherishes move into the world without her. On crowded subways, in strange bedrooms, at Bar Mitzvahs, in brownstone basements and high school gymnasiums, Nissen’s unforgettable characters make their hilarious and wrenching way–and prove, indeed, that good things thrive in New York City.

Excerpt

Chapter One
During the summer of 1970 Fran Kornblauser was renting a fifth-floor walk-up in a building whose buzzer system was partially and perennially incapacitated. When she threw a dinner party--which she did with characteristic frequency--her guests were able to buzz up to Fran's to announce their arrival, but Fran could not, as the system only worked in one direction, buzz back down to open the door. Thus, when the bell rang, Fran would hoist open one of the large front windows that overlooked East Eleventh Street, her jangling necklaces and voluminous breasts dangling over the window box and crushing the petunias planted there by the former tenant, wave hello to her prospective company stranded on the sidewalk, their necks craned upward like gawkers at a rooftop suicide, and toss a spare key out the window to the cement five flights below. "Turn it left and push hard," she'd holler. "It sticks like a motherfucker."

Roz Rosenzweig, who with her crazy ostrich legs and excruciatingly bright and irrevocably short Marimekko minidress looked remarkably like a strawberry lollypop, and Edwin Anderson, seersucker suit rumpled to Kennebunk perfection though he was himself not a Mainer but a Nebraskan, arrived on the stoop outside Fran Kornblauser's simultaneously and became acquainted on their knees as they scrounged in a bed of impatiens for the elusive key which had ricocheted off a third-floor balcony and landed in the little cordoned-off flower patch. A sign hanging from the chain requested that dogs kindly be curbed elsewhere; still, Roz was unsurprised when, instead of the key, her hand brushed what one hasty sniff proved to be a mostly but not completely hardened pile of dog shit.

"Dammit," she said.

"I've got it!" he exclaimed, procuring the key and holding it up so that it glinted in the light. He raised himself to standing and offered her a hand, but she declined and pushed herself to her own feet. His arm was still outstretched. "Edwin," he said, "Edwin Anderson," and he extended his hand further toward her.

"Roz Rosenzweig," she said, "but I think we should wait and shake on that later."

"Oh," he said. "OK."

She shrugged. "Whelp . . . up to Fran's?" she suggested, and when he gestured for her to go ahead she said,

"No no, after you," knowing full well all he wanted was a good view from behind for five flights. So then it was he who shrugged, and pushed open the door.

As it turned out, it was neither her ass nor his gallantry that had prompted Edwin's offer to allow Roz ahead of him, but the simple fact that he was a man who walked with a dreadful limp and knew that taking the steps behind him was bound to make for an unbearably slow and frustrating climb.

From the fourth-floor landing, they could see Fran hanging out the open door, a plastic tumbler of drink in hand.

"Come on, Gimpy," Fran called, not yet drunk, just naturally crass. She turned and yelled into the apartment:

"One more flight and the Gimp'll have made it."

Now doubly horrified. . . by her tainted hand and by Fran's unconscionable ridicule of this poor limping guy. . . Roz watched as Fran herded Edwin through the apartment door, and then she flicked a wrist and whacked Fran on the rather substantial flank of her upper arm. Ice cubes clunked in the jostled tumbler.

"You rat," Roz scolded, her face contorting into an overly dramatized approximation of appalled.

Fran gave Roz a reciprocal whack that nearly sent her sprawling down the stairs she'd just so arduously climbed.

"What's next?" Roz hissed. "You going to start hanging around St. Vincent's poking fun at the bedridden?"

Fran guffawed, flapped her arm toward the apartment door through which Edwin had disappeared, then gave another amused snort. "You mean the Gimp'"

"Fran!"

"Roz-Roz," Fran said, wrapping her arm around Roz and guiding her, too, into the apartment, "things are hardly as they appear, my darling."

Edwin "The Gimp" Anderson, it soon became clear, was not a cripple but a casualty of the Mad River Glen Ski Area. Fran's party guests were all skiers, except Roz, who had lived her twenty-nine years on the island of Manhattan and could imagine nothing so unpleasant as a vacation in the middle of God-Knows-Where, Vermont, frostbitten on the side of a mountain with six feet of deadly fiberglass strapped to the bottom of each of the only two feet she had. There was much debate throughout the course of the evening as to what his accident said about Edwin's downhill prowess. Roz, having washed her hands thoroughly, sat on the floor of Fran's sparsely furnished bachelorette pad trying not to flash her underwear to absolutely everyone in the room, sipping her Vodka Collins, and pondering how she might offer herself up as an object of ridicule just to save poor Edwin from the barrage of attention which she was sure he had never before attracted in his short little library-squirreled life. Though he was taking it remarkably well (some, including Barb Carpenter, who always found it within her to come to the defense of any marginally attractive male in distress, did, after all, believe that Edwin's fall on a particularly icy stretch of "the Goat," a double black diamond slope, in no way indicated that the mountain had gotten the better of him), Edwin was taking it mostly in the face, his blush a shade of magenta not dissimilar to Roz's minidress, the purchase of which she was growing to regret more with every passing moment, vowing that, if she managed to escape Fran's without spilling anything particularly disastrous on herself, she would return to Marimekko the next day on her lunch hour and exchange it for the turquoise she knew she should have gone with in the first place. Her down-the-hall neighbor, Loralee, whom Roz had consulted for final fashion inspection that evening before she'd headed over to Fran's, had assured Roz that only she could pull off a dress like that so fabulously. Roz wasn't convinced. She had always wanted to be a devil-may-care girl, proud and irrepressibly fuchsia. The fact was, she felt a lot more comfortable in blue. With maybe a few more inches of material to cover up her rather nice but very white thighs.

Edwin Anderson, a newly anointed lawyer fresh from the heartland. . . who wanted, he avowed earnestly, to do work in civil rights. . . cornered Roz in Fran's kitchen, where she'd retreated for a few moments of reprieve under the pretense of replenishing the bean dip. She was in the process of adding another jigger of vodka to her Collins when the door swung open to yield Edwin, carrying the near-empty potato chip bowl like a monk begging for alms.

"Fran sent me for chips," he announced.

"What are you, the lackey'" Roz tossed another jigger into her drink for good measure and pawed around the countertop for the screw cap she'd set down somewhere. "Fran sent you to shame me out of raiding her liquor cabinet, is what you've actually been dispatched to do." Roz waggled the bottle toward him.

"In that case," said Edwin, "she picked the wrong spy." He set his chip bowl on top of the fridge where he'd be sure to forget about it completely, and started opening Fran's cabinets one after another in search of a clean glass. "What're you mixing'" he asked. "Over the sink, on the left," Roz said. "Collins." She paused. "Collinses' Collinsi?" "It could be like lice?" Edwin suggested. "Ice' In the freezer," Roz said. "Do I look like a bartender' You've got arms." "No, I, no, I mean, I meant the plural. Louse, lice. Mouse, mice. It could be like that. Or even like children. You know: child, children." "Edwin," Roz said, facing him dead on, "tonight we're making yours a triple."

Edwin Anderson had not one iota of New York savvy, yet he managed to surreptitiously extract Roz's phone number from Fran's kitchen address book, and telephoned Roz the very next evening not two minutes after she'd walked in the door from work, the new Marimekko bag in hand, to ask her out on a date.

"To see the symphony," he said.

Roz was trying to wriggle out of her panty hose, the phone clamped precariously between her shoulder and her jaw. "Is that the bargain deal for people who can't afford to go and hear the symphony?" she asked him.
Edwin didn't laugh. "Actually," he said, "I've only got one ticket. I thought you'd watch while I listen. We could switch at intermission if you'd like."

Roz was utterly unprepared for sarcasm from the mouth of a Nebraska farm boy. And a lawyer too, no less. A legal secretary, Roz spent her days surrounded by lawyers and found them, on the whole, to be a humorless lot.

"What'd you do?" Edwin asked. "Drop the phone?"

"No," she said, grabbing hold of the receiver. She lifted her feet from the floor in front of the couch, panty hose still bunched around her ankles, and scissored her legs apart and together thinking such an exercise might have surprising effects on her butt, which she was sure would be the first thing to go as she sagged her way into middle age.

"I could pick you up," he suggested. "Tomorrow evening, say around seven . . ."

Suddenly it felt like a challenge. "OK, sure," Roz said. He seemed harmless enough. And, honestly, when she thought about it, she could not remember once, ever, having had a man ask her to something so elegant as the symphony.

"It was perfectly adequate," Roz told Loralee, who came knocking voraciously on Roz's door for details when she returned from her date with Edwin Anderson. Loralee was a bombshell, about as savvy as a tulip, and monogamously devoted to her incurably philandering boss, which, Roz told her regularly, quite obviously stemmed from Loralee's deep-seated fears of dating in New York City.

"So, any mushy stuff?" Loralee sat on the carpet, her back up against Roz's front door as if to block all means of escape.

"Actually, yes," Roz said. She was flopped out on the couch, conducting Brahms in the air with her left foot.

"We went for an ice cream."

"Mmmmm. What flavor?" Loralee demanded.

"I had Butter Pecan."

"No, the gentleman," Loralee prodded.

"Vanilla."

"Sugar cone?"

Roz nodded.

"Uh-oh."

"You said it," Roz concurred.

When Edwin called a week later to invite Roz on an architectural walking tour of Harlem, she lied, right through those mildly crooked but admirably white teeth she took such pains to brush and floss. "I'm sorry. That sounds lovely, but I'm spending the weekend up in Westchester. My aunt and uncle's place, you know?"

"Sure," Edwin said, about as suspicious as a ballpoint pen. "Some other time."

"OK, well, actually, I've actually got to get off the phone, Edwin. Thanks for the thought."

"Sure," he said. "No problem."

"Well, bye," she said, taking the receiver from her ear before he had a chance to sign off, though there was no doubt that he would anyway.

Eight million people in the city of New York, what could the numerical odds possibly be of running into the one person you've told you'll be out of town' But it was Sunday afternoon, on the Fifth Avenue bus, right by the Metropolitan, when someone brushed Roz on his way toward the back door and paused there, his breath just behind her ear "Westchester, huh'" he said, his voice cold as chrome, and she didn't even have a chance to turn around before she spotted that telltale seersucker jacket mounting the steps of the Museum of Art.

Without thinking, Roz yanked on the signal cord, hollered "Getting off!" and plowed her way to the back door. She dashed up the museum steps and grabbed at the sleeve of Edwin's jacket. He turned, calm as only a nonnative New Yorker could be, and faced Roz on a landing halfway up the imposing bank of steps that served to weed out the faint of heart and bar the cardiovascularly unfit from access to the world's great art. Now that Roz was there, panting from her sprint and still clinging to the material at Edwin's elbow, she was at a loss for words. Any excuse would be paltry and disingenuous. And Roz, who took silence to be a sign of nothing less than death, couldn't bear it. "I just . . . I mean . . . I'm. . . ," she stuttered.
Edwin interrupted. "That was rude of me," he said. "Not to mention juvenile. I apologize."

"What?"

"I said I was sorry for. . . "

She cut him off this time. "You're apologizing to me? You can't apologize to me. You've been nothing but perfectly nice and I lie, and then I get caught like a kid in the cookie jar and now you think you should be. . . "

". . . Apologizing for baking the cookies in the first place'" He chuckled.

"Exactly." Roz couldn't identify her own emotions, but was afraid she sounded annoyed, or self-righteous, as if she'd just said I told you so and was waiting for Edwin to concede his own mistake.
Instead, he said, "Have you seen the Goya exhibit yet?"

"What?" Roz was disarmed.

"Goya," Edwin said. "That's what I came to see."

"Well, I, but . . . You want me to come with you?"

"Sure," he said, and there was nothing left to do but accept. If it was a game, she didn't know the rules. If it wasn't, if he was actually this trusting and forgiving a human being, the man was going to last about another week in New York before he fled on a train back to Nebraska, where the waves of grain were amber, the plains fruited, and the girls as simple and blond as sunflowers.

That evening they ate Indian food beneath billowing purple tapestries at a little place on Sixth Street where the curry was so hot Roz had gulped her own glass of water in one breath and then moved on to Edwin's, which he had pushed insistently toward her without a word. They went to Little Italy the next weekend, and for drinks one evening after work in a tiny brownstone yard turned garden bistro. They strolled the Bronx Botanical Garden, and prowled Greenwich Village, Edwin's architectural guide in hand, and when they stopped for hot dogs on a bench beside a playground, he read to her descriptions of Gothic facades and flying buttresses that sounded, through his Midwestern appreciation and awe, as much like poetry as any verse she'd ever heard. It was her apartment they'd retire to at the end of an evening since his roommate, a law student at NYU, seemed never to venture out of doors, and though Edwin almost never stayed the night at Roz's (he worked early in the morning, and as the firm's underling lawyer, he liked to be fresh when he arrived at the office), he almost always stayed until Roz was just on the edge of sleep, when he would kiss her softly, gather his clothes, and dress in the dark before he let himself out, pulling the door silently shut behind him.

He was not, in any way, a man Roz would have imagined for herself. He was four years her junior, for god's sake, and he'd never really even known a Jew before Roz, let alone kissed one. He still limped a bit from his injury, and though he wasn't short. . . five eight, the same as Roz. . . he certainly wasn't tall. He had fair and honest good looks but lacked even an ounce of the dark mystery, furtive heart, or swarthy sophistication that Roz had clambered after for most of her adult life. But there was a point at which one tired of clambering, and Roz wondered if maybe she was reaching hers. A point when you stopped looking for Eden and set down your bags right where you were just to have the weight off your back. And maybe you stopped and built yourself a little house then, not because you'd found paradise but because the land was fertile, the view pleasant, the water clear and cold. When Loralee pried Roz for details about the clean-cut and exceedingly polite young man she often encountered late at night in the lobby of their apartment building, he on his way out, she on her way in, panty hose tucked into her purse, all Roz could manage to say on Edwin's behalf was, "I don't know, Loralee. He's not a shit," disbelieving her own words as she spoke them, as though she'd always understood shittiness to be an intrinsic male characteristic, as essential to attraction as musk.
Thisbe Nissen|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Thisbe Nissen

Thisbe Nissen - The Good People of New York

Photo © Erin Ergenbright

Thisbe Nissen is a graduate of Oberlin College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and she is a former James Michener Fellow. A native New Yorker, she now lives, writes, gardens, and collages in Iowa City, Iowa.

Thisbe Nissen’s Out of the Girls’ Room and into the Night and The Good People of New York are available in Vintage paperback.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with
Thisbe Nissen
author of
The Good People of New York


Q. What made you want to write this book and how did you begin to formulate the story?

A. I first wrote the story "The Rather Unlikely Courtship of Edwin Anderson and Roz Rosenzweig" in an attempt to chronicle a somewhat fictionalized version of my parents' courtship. I had no real plans of turning it into a novel at all. Around the same time I wrote a story called ''Think About If You Want," which ostensibly had nothing to do with the other story. But some time passed and I think I realized that the mother character (I had called her Sheila in "Think About...") was actually and without a doubt a much later incarnation of Roz: divorced; raising a daughter; an outspoken, feisty, survivor-of-a-woman who has been unlucky in love and still has this stalwart strength about her. I started bridging the stories. A few years later, The Good People of New York was the result.

Q. You grew up in NYC. How did this affect the writing of your novel?

A. I did grow up in Manhattan, and I think that has, of course, been a source in much of my fiction. My mom recently went to a lecture by John Updike, where someone apparently asked him how much of his work was actually him and he said something like "Writing fiction is like handwriting." You can alter it, camouflage it, twist everything around, use different pens, whatever, but it's still your handwriting when it comes down to it. I think even if you're writing the most way out twisted stuff, it's still you writing it, and so of course it's impacted by who you are and the experiences you've had and the life you've lived. I lived in New York for eighteen years, I grew up there, it's part of me, for better or worse.

Q. Do you identify with any one character in particular?

A. All of them, actually, in one way or another. I guess, particularly Miranda and Darrin. And Wing, too. I think Miranda and Darrin are such close friends in part because they complement each other so completely; maybe they're more like two halves of the same person, and I see myself a little in that person that they make up together. And then Wing could almost be that Miranda/Darrin person a few years later, post-college, still a kid in many ways, and trying hard to figure out how to be an adult. I definitely put myself in that category.

Q. Do you ever feel "far away" from yourself, as Edwin has become from himself and his family?

A. No, not really, but I've known people like Edwin in that regard, felt the kind of fear that comes from being (and being around) such a person.

Q. How long have you been writing? When and how did you begin in earnest?

A. I've always written, always wanted to "be a writer when I grew up." I wanted to go to college at Oberlin in part because it was one of the few schools at that time that offered an undergrad Creative Writing major (which I didn't actually end up doing; I was an English major with a Creative Writing concentration) and I knew then that I wanted to be in workshops, to be able to focus seriously on writing in college. It wasn't until my junior year, though, that I wrote my first real "story" in order to apply for a Fiction Workshop. It was an incredible class —with a phenomenal professor named Diane Vreuls to whom I owe so much, and an amazing group of peers (of the twelve of us, most everyone is still writing: Myla Goldberg's novel Bee Season came out last year; Lisa Jervis founded and edits "Bitch Magazine: Feminist Response to Pop Culture," and has had essays appear in numerous anthologies and in such magazines as Ms., Utne Reader, and Bust; Brian Borowka is an award-winning playwright in the MFA program at Phoenix, Arizona; James Borda is writing sci-fi novels; Beth Chimera won a Pushcart Prize for her short fiction, etc.) We were all writing in earnest even then, and I suppose we just kept going from there.

Q. Your writing is very emotional. Do you experience these emotions as you are writing, or are they purely fictional?

A. I'm there inside all those emotions as I'm writing. It's not a trick or something I force myself through, that's just the way it goes: if I'm writing them well, then I'm feeling them, too. I'm a generally emotional person to begin with. I have no poker face. Everything's pretty much hanging out on my sleeve at all times. Tears are never too far below the surface.

Q. This is your first full-length novel. How does writing a book of this length compare to writing short stories?

A. It's my first published full-length novel, but not the first I've written. Maud and Drew is a novel with a home in my closet, and it was the first—the place where I really had no idea what I was doing. I gave myself the freedom to try anything: cut it all into little pieces and rearrange them, hack out huge chunks of text on a very regular basis and alter the course of events dramatically. I got to play when I was writing Maud and Drew, and even if it never sees the light of day (though I do feel bad for poor Maud and Drew, living there in that dark closet), it was worth the two and a half years I spent on it—for the process and what it taught me about how to do better the next time around.

Q. Was the transition from story-writing to novel-writing a difficult one?

A. Not difficult at all. It's the only way I've ever done it: writing stories that then turned into a novel. I also find it's satisfying to be working on stories while working on a novel. A novel's such a big, unwieldy beast, and there's not a lot of short-term gratification in the process, so to be working on a short story concurrently (better yet: a short-short!) gives me that sense of occasional accomplishment: I finished something!
The novel I’m working on now is a very different sort of project for me. It takes place during the course of one summer. The focus is on the inhabitants of a small eastern-shore island and the events that ultimately lead to the death of one character. I’m using a more omniscient point of view to write a story that’s much more somber than what I’ve written before.

Q. What do you feel is the fundamental message you are trying to convey with The Good People of New York, and how does your title relate?

A. I don't think I've really got a "message to convey" at all. If anything, I feel like I'm just trying to open up some portholes into some lives. As for the title: the anecdote included in the final chapter (of the same name) was told to me by my best friend, Michelle, to whom I basically owe my entire sense of humor. She's twenty times funnier than I could ever hope to be, and every time she tells me a story I'm on the other end of the phone line scribbling madly to get it all down, calling her back a million times begging "please tell me again about the time when..."

Q. How did you feel when you completed this book?

A. I finished the first complete draft while I was in New York staying with my folks. I took my laptop down to the Public Library at 42nd St., and in the course of a couple of weeks I finished the novel and sold it and also happened to fall in love with a man I spotted sitting across the Rose Main Reading Room. A lot of dreams I never ever thought could come true did. I guess I felt pretty incredibly wonderful.

Author Q&A

Thisbe Nissen was on tour for the hardcover publication of The Good People of New York during the summer of 2001. For her author's desktop she kept a day-by-day tour diary on the road.

During her tour, Nissen had three joint events with Matthew Klam, author of Sam the Cat. Their e-mail exchange in preparation for these readings is also included on her desktop.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“By turns funny and poignant. . . . Conjures serious emotions with grace, humor and gravity.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Funny and tender . . . Nissen is a perceptive writer with a wry sensibility.”–Chicago Tribune

“Light-hearted but not ‘lite,’ sweet-natured but never sentimental.” –TheBaltimore Sun

“A delightful novel . . . Aptly incorporates all of the sizzle, sorrow, and sporadic elation that a screwed-up family encounter. Nissen has spun an enticing story one wants to lap up whole.” –The Boston Phoenix

Awards

WINNER New York Public Library Books for the Teen Age
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“A voice that is by turns funny and poignant . . . conjures serious emotions with grace, humor and gravity.” —SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s discussion of The Good People of New York, Thisbe Nissen’s sparkling debut novel.

About the Guide

It’s love with an edge in this sharp tale of would-be urban sophisticates who embark on a mismatched marriage and have a daughter. As the story unfolds, Nissen depicts the relationships and conversations of the well-meaning but slightly neurotic inhabitants of New York with uncanny acumen.

Edwin Anderson and Roz Rosenzweig meet outside Fran Kornblauser’s Manhattan apartment in 1970—he is a scrubbed, polite Nebraskan, fresh out of law school and eager to practice civil rights law, while she is a cynical, sexily dressed Jewish legal secretary. After a brief, unlikely courtship, they marry. The newlyweds’ first visits to their respective in-laws in Omaha, Nebraska, and Yonkers, New York, only serve to punctuate the differences in their backgrounds. Oblivious, the happy couple plunges into parenthood, but the birth of their daughter Miranda and the passage of time takes its toll on their marriage. Miranda’s life epitomizes fast-paced New York City. Spunky and savvy, burying her youth and vulnerability under a mask of sarcasm, Miranda is determined to grow up quickly despite Roz’s desire to keep her young. New people—native New Yorkers, and a few non-natives, too—come in and out of Roz’s, Miranda’s, and Edwin’s lives. As the 1970s eventually give way to the 1990s, families change, households reconfigure, and everyone grows a little older and, perhaps, a little wiser.

About the Author

Thisbe Nissen is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a former James Michener Fellow. She is the author of the story collection Out of the Girls’ Room and into the Night, and her stories have appeared in Story and Seventeen. A native New Yorker, she now lives in Iowa.

Discussion Guides

1. Are the characters portrayed in the novel actually “good people,” and, if so, what makes them “good”? Or, is the title meant to be sarcastic? How so?

2. Fran tells Roz on her first meeting with Edwin, “Things are hardly as they appear” [p. 5]. Where else in Roz’s life does her perception conflict with reality? What does this say about Roz’s character?

3. Why does Roz and Edwin’s marriage end? How does Miranda’s birth change them as individuals? Does their new daughter alter their marriage or merely accentuate differences that were already there? How does the author foreshadow the fate of the marriage long before Roz and Edwin themselves experience it?

4. Is Miranda and Roz’s mother-daughter relationship a realistic one? Roz had intended to be “the fabulous mom-who’s-more-like-a-friend-than-a-mom mom” to Miranda, not a “worrier” like her own mother, Adele [p. 67]. Does Roz live up to her expectations of motherhood? How does Roz’s perception of herself as a mother differ from Miranda’s view of her mother [see pp. 105 and 246]? How accurate is Darrin’s perception of their relationship [p. 237]?

5. What does it mean that Edwin does not have “one iota of New York savvy” [p. 7]? Was Edwin doomed from the beginning to return to Nebraska, “where the waves of grain were amber, the plains fruited, and the girls as simple and blond as sunflowers” [p. 10]? How are the native New Yorkers in the novel more “savvy”? How might Wing and Darrin, also “non-natives,” rank in terms of on Roz’s scale of savviness?

6. Aside from the references to public transportation [pp. 35 and 136], the tragedy of moving from Manhattan to Brooklyn [p. 137], the Metropolitan Museum of Art [p. 9], Zabar’s [p. 66], Bloomingdale’s [p. 133], and other New York City landmarks, what makes The Good People of New York a quintessentially New York novel? How might a non-New Yorker and a New Yorker read this book differently?

7. For which character do you feel the most sympathy? Which characters do not evoke as much compassion and why? How is the author simultaneously sympathetic and sarcastic toward her characters, and how does it affect your ability to relate to them? Is this more true or less true of the secondary characters, such as Ben, Alex, and Shaunna?

8. When Miranda tries to think of Spencer, why can she remember only the night her father left [p. 112]? Is Spencer a father figure to Miranda? What does he teach her?

9. How does Roz’s religion define her? How are Roz’s and Mona’s Judaism manifested differently? Is religion at the core of Roz’s identity? Is it a contributing factor to the failure of her marriage, or is it irrelevant? After Edwin and Roz marry, the author no longer mentions the religion of the people in Roz’s, Edwin’s, and Miranda’s lives. Why not?

10. The imagery of motion permeates The Good People of New York. For example, Roz imagines her courtship with Edwin in terms of arriving at a destination and establishing roots [pp. 11–12] and Miranda associates the paths her parents’ lives have taken with driving [p. 194]. What mood do these travel images and metaphors create? What do they convey about life in New York City? How is the implied sense of perpetual motion, the need to get from one place to another, reflected in the characters?

11. How do the letters from camp in Chapter 7 help advance the plot [pp. 75–90]? How does this chapter hint at the changes to come in Miranda’s family? Where else does Nissen use foreshadowing?

12. Compare the friendships in the book to the relationships among family members. Does one type of relationship seem to take priority over another? How does Ben and Miranda’s relationship demonstrate the way in which lines between family relationships and friends are often blurred? Does the novel accurately reflect how some people drift in and out of our lives and some people stay constant?

13. The novel spans a period of time from just before Miranda’s birth until her eighteenth birthday. Is this primarily Miranda’s story or Roz’s? Does the narrative voice shift successfully from Roz to Miranda? Is either one dominant? Does The Good People of New York fit squarely into the coming-of-age genre, and if so, whose coming-of-age does it portray?

14. Nissen often ends chapters before informing the reader of whether or not an event occurs and later fills in the plot (for example, the death of Adele [Chapter 5], the dissolution of Edwin’s and Roz’s marriage [Chapter 8], and Miranda’s rendezvous with Jeremy [Chapter 10]). How does omitting the description of events when they actually occur affect the development of the novel?

15. How is Roz like Adele [p. 67]? What physical characteristics and personality traits does Miranda inherit from her mother and father?

16. Nissen often includes cultural references to timely popular fads, for example, Roz’s return to law school [p. 65], the “latchkey kid” [p. 91], Obsession perfume [p. 133], the television show Moonlighting [p. 220], and sushi [p. 236]. Do these references successfully convey how society changed from the 1970s through the 1990s, or do they date the novel? How might they affect the reader who did not live through these times or is not familiar with these popular trends? How else does the author convey the changing times?

17. Miranda thinks, “That’s just the way things go: you never get to the place you once looked up to because once you’re there you’re no longer looking up and you realize that maybe it only really existed if you caught it on an angle from below” [p. 269]. How is this sentiment echoed throughout the novel?

Suggested Readings

Jay McInerney, The Story of My Life; Tama Janowitz, Slaves of New York; Valerie Block, Was it Something I Said?; Carole L. Glickfeld, Swimming Toward the Ocean; Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood; John Irving, A Widow for One Year; Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus; Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and Back When We Were Grownups; Laurie Colwin, A Big Storm Knocked It Over, Goodbye Without Leaving, and Another Marvelous Thing; Nathan Englander, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges.

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: