By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman
(JTA Coop) – Readers of summer fiction come in several categories. Some people want light, airy, easy-to-read novels – ones that don’t tax their brains or too deeply affect their moods. Others – especially those who don’t have the time or energy to read during the winter months – are looking for meatier works – novels that will engage their minds and emotions. I find all of these types of books appealing, although I admit that not every novel is perfect material for a vacation. For example, when reading “Regeneration” by Pat Barker, each time I looked up from the pages, I was surprised to find myself on the beach rather than in a World War II trench. (For those interested, “Regeneration” is the first book in wonderful trilogy. The third novel, “The Ghost Road,” was so good it won a Man Booker award, beating out Salmon Rushdie’s “The Moor’s Last Sigh.”) A friend mentioned that during one summer vacation she read “Room” by Emma Donoghue. Although she liked the book, its disturbing story did not make for easy, pleasant vacation reading. However, being ambitious in the summer is not necessarily a bad thing, unless you’re like the character in Philip Roth’s story “Goodbye, Columbus,” who sits by the pool every summer trying to read “War and Peace,” but never finishing.
“Leaving Lucy Pear”
“Leaving Lucy Pear” by Anna Solomon (Viking) has one of the most emotional openings of any novel I’ve read in years. One summer night in 1917, young, unmarried Beatrice Haven places her newborn baby under one of the pear trees in her Uncle Ira’s orchard and watches as the child is carried away by an Irish family that visits the orchard every summer to steal its pears. Bea knows her family won’t allow her to keep the her daughter, but she can’t bear to give the child to the cold, unemotional woman from the Orphanage for Jewish Children. The next chapter begins 10 years later and follows not only Bea’s life, but that of Lucy Pear Murphy (Bea’s daughter) and Emma Murphy, the Irish woman who became her mother.
The years have not been kind to Bea: unable to cope, she dropped out of school and then married a man who is her husband only in the legal sense. Bea spends as much time as possible in her uncle’s home because it is the only place she truly feels welcome. When Emma is hired to care for the aging Ira, she immediately realizes Bea is Lucy Pear’s birth mother, but keeps that secret close to her heart. Bea is completely unaware of the connection, which makes for awkward conversations on both sides. Bea also has an uneasy relationship with both her parents and Ira’s adult children who visit that summer. Emma, in the meantime, looks for ways to solve her financial difficulties, at least until her husband returns from his latest fishing expedition. Secrets are suddenly revealed after Lucy Pear learns more about her original heritage and takes desperate steps to change her own life.
“Leaving Lucy Pear” is beautifully and realistically written. Solomon shows just how complex life becomes when people are forced to make difficult decisions that affect more than one person. She also notes that what is not discussed by members of a family can have as great an effect on their lives as what is freely expressed. I came to care about all the characters, even the unpleasant ones, because the author so lovingly delineates their faults and strengths.
At first glance, “Fat Chance” by Aviva Orenstein (Quid Pro Books) looked to be a simple and predictable rom-com. While I’ve enjoyed reading books that fit that category, I was pleased to discover the Orenstein is trying for something a bit different – showing how a 40-year-old divorced, overweight woman realizes that people and life are far more complex than she expects. Although most of the characters in “Fat Chance” seem to fit particular stereotypes, Orenstein shows how first – and even second – impressions are not always accurate. It’s a lesson Claire, who narrates the novel, needs to learn. For example, she sees her son Sam as a sullen, miserable teenager, especially after he gets into trouble at school. She denigrates her ex-husband, who is missing in action after his remarriage and seldom finds time to spend with Sam. Her friend and next-door neighbor, who seems to have a perfect life, suffers a loss that leaves her whole family grieving. And even though the man Claire meets at the gym seems a perfect match, she soon discovers that relationships are also not always as simple and easy as they may seem.
What is intriguing about “Fat Chance” is that all the characters have hidden depth, and Claire realizes she’s been too quick to judge everyone, including herself. Although many of the characters are members of the same synagogue, Claire resists joining, even when she has to admit that being a member has had a positive effect on many people she knows. Parts of the plot were predictable – I managed to guess several things before Claire did – but others went in a different direction than I expected. The novel’s prose is not exciting, but it was a pleasure to watch Claire realize the importance of looking below the surface to understand the true worth of a person.
“Walking the Dog”
Elizabeth Swados picked a difficult and serious subject to write about in her last novel “Walking the Dog” (The Feminist Press at the City University of New York). The work, which was published after her death, begins when Carleen Keeper is unexpectedly released from prison after 25 years. Born Ester Rosenthal, her name is changed by a warden to protect her from the many prisoners who hate Jews. Her crime still had a certain element of notoriety, so the extra protection would have been welcomed if Ester wasn’t in shock about the arrest. A famous child prodigy whose artwork still sells even after she’s in prison, her college-age pranks had turned serious and Ester/Carleen settled in for a life without parole.
Totally unprepared for life outside of prison, Carleen, as she still calls herself, takes a job as a dog walker, since she relates to animals far better than she does to humans. She also tries to reconnect with her daughter, Pony, who now calls herself Batya Shulamite. Batya Shulamite lives with her observant father and stepmother, and is preparing for her bat mitzvah. Whether or not the two can spend time together depends as much on the courts as it does her daughter, since Batya Shulamite’s father tries to prevent Carleen from participating in any part of their daughter’s life.
“Walking the Dog” moves backward and forward in time as readers learn exactly what Ester did to be sentenced to life in prison and her difficulty in adjusting to life outside. The sections that occurred in prison are brutal: beatings and rapes – done by both guards and other prisoners – are common. Carleen is not a pleasant person – it’s clear she had mental issues even before entering prison – but I found myself hoping that she would be able to navigate the outside world and remain free. That doesn’t mean I grew to like her, something I had in common with many of the people she encounters during the course of the novel. Yet, that didn’t prevent the book from grabbing, and keeping, my interest.
“Nine Women, One Dress”
Does the order we read books affect the way we view them? I pondered that question while reading “Nine Women, One Dress” by Jane L. Rosen (Doubleday), a lovely, charming novel that’s perfect for beach reading. My concern was that perhaps I just needed a break after reading the horrifying prison tales featured in “Walking the Dog.” In Rosen’s novel, I just knew that everything was going to work out perfectly, but still had a great deal of fun seeing exactly how that was accomplished. Even considering the fact that I needed a break from heavy, emotional fiction, I think I would have found Rosen’s book delightful, if only because the author made me accept the idea that wearing one special dress can change your life.
The novel posits that, in every fashion season, there is one dress that is the “it dress.” It appears on the cover of numerous fashion magazines and becomes the one dress everyone wants. Rosen uses this dress to link a wide variety of characters, including Morris Siegel, an almost 90-year-old Jewish pattern-maker, who tells of his journey from Poland just before World War II; Tab Hunter, a movie star trying to fight the negative PR generated by his girlfriend’s affair with her trainer; Natalie, who works as a saleswoman at Bloomingdale’s and agrees to date Tab only because she thinks he’s gay; Arthur Winters, a 60-year-old widower and attorney who is dating a woman far younger than him; and Felicia, Arthur’s executive assistant, who has been in love with him for decades. Actually, there are too many characters to list – all of whom Rosen manages to cleverly connect – and several more romances.
Even with all the characters and plot lines, the action was easy to follow and I found myself hoping all the stories would turn out exactly the way I wanted. (Spoiler alert: They did, but that was part of the fun.) I don’t think any dress ever made me the feel the way Rosen’s little black dress makes the women characters in her novel feel, but she made me understand why that happened. “Nine Women, One Dress” is satisfying, highly enjoyable fluff – and I mean that as a great compliment.
Rabbi Rachel Esserman is the executive editor and book reviewer for The Reporter Group published by the Jewish Federation of Broome County. Her editorials and reviews have won awards from the American Jewish Press Association and the Syracuse Press Club.