A few years back, I had the great fortune of receiving an ARC (Advance Reading Copy) of Kristopher Jansma's The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. I enjoyed it. It was filled with breathtaking sentences and magic. The structure, the metafictional elements, the style—it all reminded me a tad of David Mitchell, but in no way did I feel Jansma was trying to emulate Mitchell; Jansma had a voice all his own. I was hooked.
So I was excited to get my hands on a copy of Jansma's follow-up, Why We Came to the City. Once again, I had the pleasure of finding an ARC. What an amazing novel it is. And, oh, how so different from the author's earlier work.
Why We Came to the City is the tale of five friends, in their twenties, trying to make a life in New York City. One of the friends has an inscrutable past that haunts her. Then tragedy strikes and everyone must chose if they'll collapse under the strain or press on. Sound familiar? Yeah, it's a trendy premise, right? Most notable is last year's buzz book, A Little Life. But in all the ways I felt A Little Life failed—unbelievable scenarios, incomprehensible characters, a disconnect from realism—this book succeeds. These are realistic characters with realistic struggles who are put into realistic scenarios. Given Jansma's previous novel, I was quite surprised by all this realism myself.
But oh how gorgeous it is. These kinds of stories are the reason I read. Primarily, I read because I want to feel, I want to have empathy for someone from a different walk of life. Why We Came to the City reached deep into my chest and pulled out my beating heart. I admit, I was a little disappointed that Jansma barely tapped the magical style he so clearly is skilled in, but the magic of this novel happens in the heart, not the brain.
I really hope this one takes off. Obviously, it's too early to award any “Best of the Year” prizes, but I think this one will make quite a few of the lists. It's a beautifully rendered story and so much more accessible than its contemporaries.