New Rochelle, NY is undoubtedly a nice place to live. It has one of the lowest crime rates in the country, the average family has an income close to $90,000, and New York City is a train ride away. If you’ve never visited New Rochelle, you might recognize the neighbourhood as the one that Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore called home in The Dick Van Dyke Show, or as the neighbourhood that Henry Hill lives with his family in Goodfellas. The real-life Frank Abagnale, of Catch Me if You Can fame, grew up there and George Cohan wrote a telling play about New Rochelle called Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway. That title literally refers to the time trains from New Rochelle take to deliver their inhabitants to the City, but also clearly refers to the juxtaposition present of suburban streets like any other in the United States, but so close to the adventures of the city that those adventures, real and imagined, colour everything in the lives of the people living there.
New Rochelle is also where Shawn Aldridge and his family live in Ivan Jenson’s Gypsies of New Rochelle. When he’s seventeen years old, Shawn moves with his parents and three siblings from Bloomington, Indiana to New Rochelle, New York. Aldridge’s father encourages him to seek shelter within the loving family since ‘there’s nothing else out there,’ while his brother informs him that the family is nothing more than gypsies and that his only shot is to “get out” and find his own happiness. In large measure, the book is about how Shawn comes to understand that both his father and his brother are right.
The story begins in 1980, the year the Aldridge’s arrived in New Rochelle. Importantly, New York City probably had more in common that year with its depiction in Taxi Driver than with the one family visit today. It had more to do with the smut and pornography of the then Times Square than with the Disney-flavored Square existing today. About six times as many murders took place in 1980 compared to 2016. It was a place where if you wanted to find yourself, you had to see past the decay. But, even then, New York City held out enough promise to young searchers that millions of people like Shawn Aldridge rearranged their lives to live amongst the homeless, the drug dealers, and the prostitutes for a winning lottery ticket.
Like all children who are the youngest, Shawn has to watch his older siblings establish themselves, or at least seem to, while he continues to struggle for pieces of himself. His sister is an exceptional violinist. His brother keeps busy in the basement of the family home, busy inventing and dreaming. His other sister was hell-bent on flaming out on her own and establishing independence. All of them competed for affection and success with each other in a manner that Shawn compares to “Lord of the Flies.” A representative of Shawn’s search for identity he dates both a Times Square stripper and a girl from the neighborhood. In the midst of all of this, Shawn’s cousin worries the family by apparently joining a cult, forcing the Aldridge’s to come together to save him before Shawn’s sister gets her big break at Carnegie Hall.
At first read, a great deal of kinship exists between Gypsies of New Rochelle and The Royal Tenenbaums, the Wes Anderson film that follows the development of the talented Tennebaum family after their parents are divorced. Gypsies’ publisher, Michelin Publishing, also draws a comparison between the book and Augusten Burrough’s memoir Running with Scissors. That comparison is also not far off the mark. Jenson clearly demonstrates his success as a writer: Gypsies of New Rochelle is enormously entertaining while also being incredibly charming. Among the accomplishments of the book is how easily Jenson is able to work humor into the story without sacrificing the flow of the narrative or becoming too obvious in his intentions. He also perfectly translates the warmth present in big families, even the eccentrics like the Aldridge’s. Even among new fiction from large publishers, Jenson’s writing stands out. Hollywood would do well to adopt the book into a movie, its structure and storyline would mesh perfectly into a visual adaptation. It would also make a great choice for your next book.
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