Bookmarked Place: Francesca Lia Block’s Manhattan

St. John the Divine

Visiting the Upper West Side’s Peace Fountain in 2012

Fiction represents places in ways that resonate or inspire, validating our own experiences or giving us new perspectives on them. For this reason, I’ve been meaning to start a series of blog posts in which I relate books to places. This is my first attempt at such a post.

Francesca Lia Block is best known for her tales of a magical Los Angeles, but her knack for capturing the spirit of a place isn’t limited to her native city. Although a seasoned New Yorker might disapprove of turning to a California author for a representation of the city, as a fellow Californian with a connection to NYC, I relate to Block’s vision of New York.

Block captures a certain fantasy of the city. It’s a distant presence in many of her books, including Weetzie Bat. The iconic Weetzie, a quirky blonde pixie of a protagonist, knows NYC through her New Yorker father, who sends her “postcards with pictures of the Empire State Building or reproductions of paintings from the Metropolitan Museum, Statue of Liberty key chains, and plastic heart jewelry.” In I Was a Teenage Fairy, main-character Barbie (named after a doll she doesn’t want to be like) imagines a symbolic New York woman:

She is always carrying bags of clothes, bouquets of roses, take-out Chinese containers, or bagels. Museum tags fill her pockets and purses, along with perfume samples and invitations to art gallery openings. When she is walking to work, to ward off bums or psychos, her face resembles the Statue of Liberty, but at home in her candlelit, dove-colored apartment, the stony look fades away and she smiles like the sterling roses she has bought for herself to make up for the fact that she is single and her feet are sore.

This image may be romanticized or stereotypical, but it demonstrates Block’s fearlessness in delving into the aesthetics and associations of place and popular culture—all of which draw me to her work.

Although I am far from a naturalized New Yorker, I did live there, once, and that period of residency was about as formative as a stint of less than three years could be.

One day I set out to explore a new bit of the vast, unknowable city that was my home. I got off the subway at an unfamiliar stop in Upper Manhattan and found myself face to face with the Gothic-seeming edifice of St. John the Divine and the sculpture beside it, of wings and faces reaching toward the sky. A plaque revealed that the sculpture was blessed on the exact day of my birth. What could make this moment seem more magically fated?

If I remember correctly, not long after that I made Harlem my next temporary home. I often took the subway just a couple of stops south, back to the cathedral, in pursuit of the wonder and comfort I felt there. (The grounds are even inhabited by peacocks.) One wintry day, I made my way through the snowy city to this particular spot and discovered an equally enchanting location just across the street—the Hungarian Pastry Shop, where I would spend many peaceful moments with a piece of  strudel or walnut cookie and a little pot of tea.

Imagine my delight when, several years later, I came across a passage in Block’s Girl Goddess #9 highlighting this same corner of New York CityThe passage shows up in the story “Dragons in Manhattan,” told from the perspective of a little girl growing up in New York with two mothers:

Izzy and Anastasia and I got off the bus at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. There is a statue of a sun and a moon with faces and a man with lots of animals that almost look like they’re part of him. Around the big statue there are little statues of animals that school kids made. There are bears, deer and birds. There are also winged horses, a unicorn, a mermaid and a dragon. I believe in those just as much as the others. Because even if nature didn’t make them, they exist: in the park next to St. John the Divine.

This is just further evidence that Block—who is known as a YA author, although I only discovered her work a few years ago—seems to be an unexpectedly kindred spirit. She’s drawn to many of the same place-based details that inspire me—and that’s a wonderful thing to see reflected in the pages of a book.

What are your favorite representations of place in fiction?

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