Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel
By Nicolaia Rips
254 pages, $25
By Kathleen Rizzo Young
Is there anything more exciting in the literary world than the arrival of a new voice on the scene?
The next Lena Dunham or David Sedaris may just be 17-year-old Nicolaia Rips, whose memoir, “Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel,” is a brilliant chronicle of the place where she has spent virtually all of her life.
It is a bit misleading to say that this is a child’s diary, as Nicolaia Rips is clearly the grown-up in the family. From its first pages, we have a clear image of the author’s parents: Her artistic mother, filled with wanderlust, and the brilliant but distracted father who cannot get Rips to school on time because he kibitzes at every business en route.
What distinguishes the book from other coming-of-age accounts (and most likely got Rips the book deal) is her address. She has wonderful stories of eccentric residents, including Artie, the nightclub impresario; The Capitan, who wears full military regalia and lets Rips ride his Newfoundland through the neighborhood; and the “mythological creature” Storme. (“I had met others who were hard to identify by age, sex or race, but never all three at once.”)
The Chelsea is almost a character in this book, with the author carefully describing the sights, sounds and smells of the legendary hotel, where gin flows freely and dinners carry over into the early morning.
One passage reads:
“Photographs and paintings by my mom and her friends adorned the walls. Above my door hung a painting by my father’s friend Andre. Under his brush, the subject of each of his portraits morphed into the face of Andre himself. Since the painting above the door was of me, I looked like a five-year-old who had just been released from rehab.”
Unfortunately (where this book is concerned), children need to go to school. Here is where the book becomes a little bit more pedestrian. Not that it’s “Captain Underpants” for the cognoscenti, but the middle school anecdotes (getting picked last for a sports team, nasty girls fighting) are obviously not as unique as those from the Chelsea.
Because Rips is an old soul by nature and most comfortable with adults, the best school stories are the ones where there are grown-ups involved. These include her audition for the High School for the Performing Arts, in which her well-meaning father provides her with an inappropriate monologue. Or her foray into dance lessons, where the teacher tells her to stop moving her legs.
One scene that perfectly captures the challenges of an artistic, quirky family in the real world is the interview for pre-K. The family shows up on the wrong day and has to share a slot with 4-year-old Ethan, who is bilingual, athletic and beginning to “read picture books in Greek.”
When the headmistress asks her father what Rips will bring to the school, he replies:
“To be honest, not much … She is hard to understand – even to those who love her; she can’t follow the illustrations in picture books, much less learn all 26 letters of the alphabet; she isn’t athletic and is getting chubby; and between us, she doesn’t have any friends …”
“But there is one thing ... If you need someone to deliver an after-dinner toast, there is none better, at least in her age group.”
Rips explains in an author’s note that “Trying to Float” took shape when she was immersed in the torture of middle school. Her parents told her to “write it down,” and she found that when she did so, the day’s inhumanity was somehow less tragic, and often humorous. As for how much of the book is factual, Rips tries to head off the accuracy issues that have plagued other memoir writers with the following indication:
“I know my teachers and classmates and others will not recognize some of the events that I recount, any more than they will recognize their names, which have been changed. Nor should they, because these are the stories of my life; stories that are remembered, imagined passed down and often a combination. They are as legitimate as my memories, which are fallible and mysterious, and as real as you care to believe.”
While “Trying to Float” is a delightful read for adults, it may also serve as a survival guide for young people who feel similarly isolated, letting them know that “it gets better,” especially if you happen to have a cool address.
Kathleen Rizzo Young is a veteran News contributing critic.