Book Review: Family connections and disconnections

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Families’ connections – and disconnections – have been the focus of fiction since humans first began to tell stories. Hearing and reading about other people’s joys and sorrows can help us better understand ourselves and our families. Three recent novels – "Say Nice Things About Detroit," "A Wedding in Great Neck" and "The Divorce Girl" – focus on family life, looking at illness, death, marriage and divorce.

"Say Nice Things About Detroit"



While the title of a famous novel claims "You Can’t Go Home Again," this is fortunately not true for the characters in "Say Nice Things About Detroit" by Scott Lasser (W. W. Norton and Company). David Halpert, a Jewish lawyer, originally returns to Detroit for a few months in order to help decide the fate of his mother, who has dementia. Something about being in the city shows David just how meaningless his life in Denver has become. Not even the fact that his former high school girlfriend, Natalie, and her brother have been murdered in a street shooting deters him. In fact, meeting Natalie’s younger sister, Caroline – who stayed in town to help her mother after the funerals– makes him realize why Detroit means so much to him. Yet, David also learns how the best of intentions can backfire in unexpected ways. The novel combines several stories to show the ways blood and love create families that feed our hearts and souls.

Almost everyone thinks David is crazy to move back to Detroit. His new neighbor finds it almost impossible to believe: "A Jewish boy doesn’t move from Denver back to Palmer Woods, where there are no Jews left, just on a whim. Something happened. You’re fleeing disbarment, an embezzlement charge, tax evasion, something." While he is fleeing his barren life, being back in Detroit makes David fall in love again with his home town. Pride plays a role in this, as he realizes when listening to music on his car radio: The station "played music that was new when he was young but now was called classic: Mitch Ryder, Bob Seger, Glenn Frey, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper. Detroiters all... Throw in John Lee Hooker and Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson and the rest of Motown, the jazz of Carter, Burell, and the Hendersons, the power of MC5 and the Stooges, the pop of Madonna and the current efforts of Ritchie, Mathers, and White, and you could argue that what the Motor City really made, the thing that would last long after the Ren Cen crumbled into the river and the world no longer needed cars, was music."

Lasser writes well, offering insights into his characters’ natures, particularly the ways they come to understand what they need to do to find happiness. Although at times the novel engaged my intellect more than my emotions, as the plot lines began to merge, the action kept me turning pages. The author’s greatest accomplishment, though, is convincingly portraying how David finds his heart and home in Detroit.

"A Wedding in Great Neck"



Although weddings are supposed to be times of unbridled joy, for many, they serve as a major source of stress. Take, for example, the wedding day of Angelica, the youngest member of the Silverstein family, where disaster is just waiting to strike. Trouble could come from a variety of sources: her divorced parents, Betsy and Lincoln, the latter of whom is a recovering alcoholic; her sister, Gretchen, who is dealing with a failed marriage and a disgruntled teenage daughter; and the resentment felt by all three of Angelica’s siblings due to the fact that she is not only the favorite child of her parents, but her very rich step-father. All these emotions and many more are on display in Yona Zeldis McDonough’s "A Wedding in Great Neck" (New American Library). What’s interesting is that while McDonough examines the thoughts of several characters, Angelica is not one of them. Readers learn about her through her actions and those of her family.

Although the novel takes place in a single day, the Silverstein family history is on display. For example, Betsy realizes that although she served as the primary parent for Angelica, her daughter has always preferred her alcoholic father. Of course, this leads Betsy to ponder how "there was no sense in this and no justice either. But, then, when had sense or justice ever been governing forces in the inexplicable workings of a family?" Gretchen must come to terms with the knowledge that her family (including her beloved grandmother) thinks of her as a failure in both work and life. What she wants for herself is something unpopular in contemporary times: "She wanted to be of use... a quaint, old-fashioned concept, especially when compared to that of her classmates, who [had been] busy angling for fast-track corporate jobs and admission into the trifecta of professional schools – law, medicine or business." Lenore, Betsy’s mother and the siblings’ grandmother, has several agendas for the day. Not only does she want to enjoy Angelica’s wedding, she hopes "to deal with her wayward grandchildren," helping them find their place in life. However, the actions of one person threatens to create havoc and ruin the day.

The novel has some problems: The characters are a bit stereotyped and the plot is melodramatic and predictable, although McDonough does supply a few surprises. Still, "A Wedding in Great Neck" makes for quick, fun reading, particularly for those who enjoy family dramas.

"The Divorce Girl"



Divorce affects every member of a family. That’s made clear in Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg’s "The Divorce Girl" (Ice Cube Press), which takes place in the 1970s. Teenager Deborah Shapiro has difficulty finding a comfortable spot for herself after her parents’ nightmare of a divorce. Truth seems to be the first casualty, with each spouse blaming the other for the break-up, although the death of one of their children might be said to play a major role. Deborah, who serves as the novel’s narrator, finds herself disappointed time and again by her parents’ behavior. The photography class she takes and her connection to a synagogue youth group serve as the only stable parts of her life.

Taking photos – and viewing her life as if through the lense of a camera – helps keep her relatively sane. This is clear from her thoughts after a particularly bad incident with a neighbor: "I was not crying, although I told myself that this was the place in the story where the girl cries. Something in me had sealed shut, and I could see the incident only as a series of pictures: the creep trying to push the door open, me slamming it shut, me running in a blur to lock the doors, me sitting very still right now. Yet even when I tried to put all the pictures together, they didn’t begin to tell the story." What’s left out is why the neighbor was at her house: Deborah met him when trying to escape her unstable and violent father.

Parts of "The Divorce Girl" are difficult to read because it’s obvious that Deborah is depressed. The behavior of the parents is inexcusable. In particular, her father’s actions should be considered child abuse, although no one (not even the sane adults in her life) consider reporting him. It’s a compliment on Mirriam-Goldberg’s writing that my reaction to the novel was so extreme at times. The author does an excellent job placing readers in Deborah’s head; unfortunately, that’s not always a pleasant place to be.