By Cecily von Ziegesar
Cecily von Ziegesar, author of the best-selling Gossip Girl series, has returned, and this time she has shifted her perspective from the Upper East Side to Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood. “Cobble Hill” features four married couples weaving in and out of one another’s lives and pulling “Xennial” high jinks and horseplay. There’s a former rock star and his purposefully bed-bound wife; there’s a quirky school nurse and her awkward, aspiring musician husband. There’s an eccentric designer and her bottom-energy inventor husband. And there’s a magazine editor and her husband, a famous writer and recent English expat struggling with his next novel. The novelist, Roy Clarke, thinks of his previous works as “chatty and witty and not about anything, really, just people from deranged families, talking.” This reads like a wink from von Ziegesar herself, and as a fan of breaking the fourth wall, I hope it is.
A lot is happening in Cobble Hill (infidelity, multiple fires, theft, frequent drug use) and yet the novel sustains a calm, plotless schema. These four Brooklyn families operate under the pretense that while nothing is great, it’s good enough for now. For a novel based in a high-income neighborhood full of brownstones, there is a refreshing lack of pretension in the prose. Von Ziegesar easily dips into the psyches of adults, teenagers and children, often on the same page, and she lets us into the interlocking structure of the story quite quickly. There’s much to be thankful for in a novel that doesn’t waste a reader’s time.
Von Ziegesar winks at the audience again by presenting Cobble Hill as a sanctuary for the liberal elite. She good-naturedly pokes fun at her characters, but she does so with a next-level amount of kook, which becomes more distracting than it needs to be. There is a famous musician named Stuart Little, from a once popular band called the Blind Mice. There is a shy teenage girl who is named — wait for it — Shy. There is a hot school nurse named Peaches who secures a drug dealer named Dr. Mellow after making just one phone call. And there is a beautiful woman named Mandy who is pretending to have multiple sclerosis. Why? Because “she liked it,” and “it felt like she was doing something earned and deserved.” Possibly even more batty than a woman faking M.S. for the full length of a novel is the nonresponse it receives when the truth comes out. Peaches the nurse finds the act “sort of badass,” and like most of the bad behavior in the novel, Mandy’s phony illness is, in the end, “not such a big deal.”
At times, the novel is the fun fall romp that it was intended to be. But the self-consciously idiosyncratic characters in an intensely geographically accurate portrayal of Brooklyn also present an odd “for us, by us” veneer; it often reads like a joke you had to be there for. Much of the appeal of this novel relies upon its references to gentrified Brooklyn. The magic comes in the form of a jolt of recognition; that feeling when a character in a novel shares your birthday, or when you see your neighbor’s face on the local news. To say this novel is niche would be an understatement, to call it wacky would be apropos — but much like the neighborhood it’s named for, “Cobble Hill” may delight readers of a certain age and income bracket.