Hermione Hoby’s Virtue Captures the Seduction of New York City
Most authors who land in New York City during the prime of their adult lives have tried their hand at writing that elusive, tantalizing sub-genre of literary fiction: the young person’s New York City novel. Most of them fail at this endeavor (not their fault—it’s way harder than it looks). Hermione Hoby, who moved to New York from London in 2010, not long after graduating from Cambridge University, succeeded spectacularly with her sharp, accomplished first novel, 2018’s Neon in Daylight, which captured a heat-struck urban landscape teeming with stifled desires. Now, with the release of her second novel, this summer’s Virtue, Hoby is going in for the kill.
The 36-year-old author might have just written the defining New York City novel of our fraught, socially anxious, and politically tumultuous times. “I wanted badly to be good; I wanted desperately to be liked. It was easy to confuse the two,” says Luca (or Luke to anyone who knew him back home in Broomfield, Colorado), Virtue’s smart, inexperienced neophyte protagonist who has secured an internship at an elite downtown literary magazine. It is here, under the dusty aura of the old-guard publishing titans, that he meets Zara, a fellow intern who is less concerned with polishing the bookplates of dead, white men than she is with Black Lives Matter, a president who has gone off the rails, and fighting for basic human rights in the streets. It is also here where Luca befriends a wealthy, middle-aged artist couple, Paula and Jason, two self-involved seducers who dazzle him with their glamour and worldliness by carrying him off to Brooklyn and then to seaside Maine.
What results is a wrestling match between the virtues of beauty and integrity, ethics and aesthetics, making a difference and making great art. “I’ve always loved New York to an embarrassing degree,” Hoby says. “It’s a bit like loving a celebrity. I could see everyone around me had a much more grown-up and complicated relationship with the place, and mine was just a constant state of the heart-eyes emoji.” When her first book was released, Hoby was married and living in Brooklyn, but like so many things that once seemed stable in our current climate, much of that life unraveled, or re-raveled, and consequently, she started writing Virtue in New York, finished most of it back in the suburbs of London while staying with her parents, and finally worked on the revisions in her current hometown of Boulder, Colorado, America’s polar opposite of New York City. There, in the foothills of the Rockies, she lives with the writer Benjamin Kunkel, faraway from the noise and anxieties of the city that she has rendered so intimately. In key ways, Virtue depicts the reckoning so many of us felt in the art and culture business when faced with the overt injustices of our flailing system in these recent years. Does art still do anything but sit there and wink and smile? “There was certainly a real existential crisis,” Hoby says of those times. “I would see people changing their lives and running for office and making these radical changes. And I just know that’s not who I am. But I hope, in a very oblique and unquantifiable way, that writing novels can be of some political, ethical, and moral use.”