Book Review: Echoes of the past – part one

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The past often returns to haunt us. That’s particularly true of families whose members have lived through traumatic times. Even those who were not directly affected can’t escape this trauma because their perceptions are colored by the fears and doubts of their relatives. The novels in this review feature characters whose lives were touched by World War II and show how echoes of the past continued to reverberate long after the war ended.
“Memento Park”
How many ways are there to understand a work of art? In Mark Sarvas’ “Memento Park” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Matt Santos ponders that question during a nightlong vigil staring at the painting that funded his grandfather’s and father’s successful escape from the Nazis. During that time, Matt reviews all that occurred since he first learned about the painting and how it changed the course of his life.
Matt works as a character actor, the actor whose face people remember, but whose name they never learn. He manages to make an impression, but knows better than to outshine the lead. His careful life, which includes an engagement to a beautiful model, is upset when he receives a phone call about the painting. When doing research on the work, Matt becomes fascinated by the life of the artist, who committed suicide when the Nazis invaded his country. What does puzzle Matt, though, is his father Gabi’s lack of interest in claiming the work. Matt and Gabi have long had a tumultuous relationship, but he notes that his father never before turned down an opportunity to make money. The painting, which is worth millions, should have been something he immediately grabbed. The only thing Gabi will tell his son, though, is to leave the painting alone; no other explanation is given.
After deciding to pursue the claim, Matt comes into contact with a woman who offers him a glimpse of the Judaism his family ignored. Rachel, a lawyer who specializes in Holocaust restitution, is an observant Jew and the most lyrical sections of the novel focus on Matt’s growing appreciation of the religion he never knew. Yet, Matt feels like an ignorant outsider whenever he tries to claim his Jewish heritage. As Rachel leads him through the restoration process, a trip to Hungary reveals information about Matt’s father that Gabi kept hidden and shows Matt a world he never knew existed.
“Memento Park” is a wonderful exploration of what occurs when someone who lives on the surface of life begins to look deeper into himself and those surrounding him. Although far from perfect, the fact that Matt is open and, finally, honest with himself makes him an appealing character, even with all his faults. The novel contains several clever plot twists, along with an intriguing look at what it means to understand the complexity of those whose presence we often take for granted.
“My Mother’s Son”
The underlying lesson of “My Mother’s Son” by David Hirshberg (Fig Tree Press) is offered in the novel’s first sentence: “When you’re a kid, they don’t always tell you the truth.” As Joel, the novel’s narrator who is also a talk radio host, notes, adults have their reasons for lying: “They tell others they don’t want to hurt you or they think you won’t understand. But in reality, it’s just easier if they tell you what makes them feel good, or what gets them out of a jam.” Retiring after doing a radio show for 47 years, Joel now wants to write about his years growing up during the 1950s, including his relationship with his brother, the politics of Boston, the worries about polio and, of course, baseball. However, something else haunts the family: the experiences of his Uncle Jake, who escaped Germany after Kristallnacht, and the reason behind his Aunt Rose’s melancholy Novembers.
Joel and his older brother, Steven, are typical boys: they’re more interested in sports and making money to attend Boston Braves baseball games, than they are in understanding the adult world. They are very proud of Papa, their grandfather, who runs a furniture store and seems to have a hand in a wide variety of activities, including local politics. Their world is rocked when they learn the Braves management may be moving the team to a different city. Joel and Steven connect with a sportswriter, who starts a campaign to keep the team in town. During this time, their Uncle Jake develops polio and the boys hope to learn more about how he arrived in the U.S. However, contradictory stories leave them puzzled about exactly what happened. It’s only as Joel matures that he uncovers some deeply hidden family secrets concerning his uncle and aunt.
While “My Mother’s Son” is a beautiful and moving story about family, it also offers an absorbing look at the backroom politics of the time, how people maneuvered behind the scenes – sometimes using unpleasant methods – to get the results they wanted. The identity of an unnamed candidate will be obvious to those who lived during that time and will resonate with readers. The love and caring the members of Joel’s extended family show for each other shines throughout Joel’s tale. However, it’s the author’s ability to capture Joel’s youthful innocence and his growing ability to understand the world that makes this coming-of-age story stand out.
“The Lost Family”
Everyone lives in a different family. That is certainly true for the three members of the Rashkin family as Jenna Blum shows in her novel “The Lost Family” (Harper). Over several decades, Peter, his wife June and their daughter Elsbeth discover that what happened to Peter during World War II set an indelible mark on their lives.
In the 1960s, Peter believes the war is behind him: his restaurant in New York City is a success and work sustains him. His only family in the U.S. – cousins Sol and Ruth – try introducing him to eligible Jewish women, but he has no interest in a long-term relationship. That changes after he meets a stunning model, the non-Jewish June Bouquet, who came to New York from a small town in the Midwest. What attracts Peter to June is that they’re both trying to escape their past. When June learns from Ruth about Peter’s history in the war – how his wife and twin daughters were killed by the Nazis – it creates problems because Peter refuses to discuss his former life. Although Peter loves June, he is unable to commit until a crisis forces his hand.
The second section of the novel focuses on June and her discontent as a housewife in the 1970s. June misses working and has difficulty controlling their daughter, who prefers her father and throws temper tantrums when her mother tries to discipline her. The last section, which takes place in the 1980s, is told from Elsbeth’s point of view as she learns how the legacy of both her parents has affected her view of the world.
Although all three sections were interesting, my preference was for the first, which was told from Peter’s point of view. I missed hearing his voice during the next sections; I wanted to know what he thought about June and Elsbeth’s behavior. Fortunately, his voice returns at the end of the novel and brings the work to a satisfying close. Blum’s greatest success is in creating three well-rounded characters whose inability to see each other clearly causes the sorrows that inform all their lives.
Part two of this review will appear in a future issue of The Reporter.