Celebrating Jewish Literature: A mystery, a rom-com and a generational saga

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

A mystery 

There’s nothing like a good murder to bring three generations together. OK, not everyone would agree with that statement. In fact, in “Mother-Daughter Murder Night” by Nina Simon (William Morrow), Beth wishes her mother, Lena, would concentrate on her recovery from cancer and let the police solve the murder of Ricardo Cruz, a naturalist with ties to a local land trust, whose body was found in the salt march near their home. But Lena refuses to back down. The high-powered real estate agent is not only bored not working: she hates living in the country with her daughter, rather than in exciting Los Angeles. She also worries the police think that Jack, her granddaughter and Beth’s daughter, may be responsible for the death. 

Disagreements between Lena and Beth are not new: there were years the two didn’t speak and their peace is an uneasy one. Beth resents how Lena subtlety – and not so subtlety – criticizes her life. That includes everything from the purchase of household items Beth does not want to suggestions on whom Beth should date. Jack is often caught between the two, but she loves helping her grandmother research why the murder might have occurred. But tracking a murderer can be dangerous, even if you’re not weak from chemo and have no appetite. That doesn’t stop Lena, who fearlessly marches into danger.

Simon has written an excellent murder mystery with enough red herrings that readers may not guess “whodunit” until the end of the novel. However, it is the relationships between the three women that makes “Mother-Daughter Murder Night” more than your average murder mystery. Readers will alternately delight in Lena and be horrified when she acts like an obnoxious witch. It’s fun to see Beth maintain her independence in light of her mother’s heavy-handiness and her attempts to be less critical of her own daughter. The intergenerational disagreements make this a great novel for book clubs, although some discussions might get heated if two generations of the same family attend. 

A rom-com

There are several clichéd ways for folks to meet in rom-coms. That doesn’t mean that writers shouldn’t use these clichés. In fact, it’s great fun to read a book where the two people destined to fall in love hate each other at first sight. That’s because readers get to sit back and enjoy watching the two duke it out before they fall madly in love. It’s also what made “Keep This Off the Record” by Arden Joy (Rising Action) such a delight to read. Well, that and one of the best casts of secondary characters found in any rom-com.

Abigail (Abby) Mayer and Freya Jonsson hated each other at first sight in high school. During a reunion held 10 years later, it didn’t take five minutes in proximity to each other for tempers to flare. Unfortunately for the two of them, their closest friends – Naomi, whom Abby has known since high school, and Will, Freya’s producer and friend – fall in love. Since Abby and Naomi were part of a close-knit group, it’s inevitable that Abby and Freya will cross paths. Although they both wish the best for their friends, they can’t stop insulting each other: all it takes is the sight of the other to bring back memories from high school. To add to the complications, the Jewish Abby is gay and a therapist, while the non-Jewish Freya keeps almost everyone at arm’s length to protect her career as newscaster. Of course, readers know that even though the two have little in common, sparks are going to fly at some point. 

The cast of secondary characters adds to the pleasure. There’s Naomi, who neglects to tell Will she’s been married before because she wanted to start anew (even though her ex-husband is a stalker who refuses to admit their relationship is over). Abby’s younger sister, Becca, seems to love her husband, although she can’t stop cheating on him with almost every man she meets. When he learns she hasn’t been faithful, she tries some very unusual ways to save her marriage. However, the ultimate fun character is Riley: Riley, who uses the pronoun they, seems to dance through life, offering comic relief and delightful commentary on the action. They are filled with joy and a love of craziness that may make readers wish they had their own Riley for a friend.

The pages of “Keep This Off the Record” turned quickly and kept me interested from the first word to the last. The PR material offered an e-mail address for the novel’s film and TV rights: some smart producer should snap them up right now. It would be awesome to see Abby and Freya spar out on the big or small screen.

A multi-generational saga 

Four generations of a Sephardic Jewish family: that’s the premise behind Ruth Behar’s “Across So Many Seas” (Nancy Paulson Books). Although it’s aimed at younger readers, anyone who enjoys generational sagas will appreciate the novel. Behar looks at the life of a 12-year-old girl in 1492 Spain, in 1923 Turkey, in 1961 Cuba and in 2003 Miami. The impetus for the plot in the first three sections are political upheavals that change the lives of the countries’ citizens.

Most older readers will recognize the year 1492 as the year that the Jews of Spain were offered two options: convert or leave the country. Those remaining who did not convert would be put to death. Benvenida’s family delayed abandoning their home until almost the last minute. Although her aunts try to convince her father to convert like they have done, he refuses and says he will not abandon his God and his faith. Benvenida chronicles the difficulty of leaving the place where their family has lived for generations, the problems they face during their journey on land and the terrors of traveling by ship for the first time in their lives. Although the family departs the ship to stay with family in Naples, it’s clear they will soon be leaving for a safer land, that of Turkey.

Reina is thrilled to be celebrating after the Turkish War of Independence in 1923. What she mistakenly believes is that change will also offer more freedom to young women. One wrong decision leads to her father disowning her and sending her with a relative to Cuba, where an arranged marriage awaits her. It is in Cuba in 1961 that Reina’s daughter, Alegra, hopes to serve the Castro Revolution. Alegra chooses to work as a brigadista, someone who travels to the Cuban countryside to teach those who have never had a chance to attend school to learn to read. However, life works out differently than she planned.

In Miami in 2003, Alegra’s daughter, Paloma, ponders the stories she’s learned of her family’s history. Are they Spanish because they consider themselves Sephardic, even though they have not lived in Spain for centuries? Since Turkish Jewish customs have also been passed down through the generations, are they really Turkish? How much have the years in Cuba affected her heritage since, while her mother is a Sephardic Jew, her father is African-Cuban? Paloma is hoping that an upcoming trip to Spain with her parents and her grandmother Reina will answer some of these questions.

“Across So Many Seas” would be perfect for book clubs containing teens and adults. Parents will want to read it with their children, focusing on how choices parents make can affect their children in unexpected ways. Adult book groups that enjoy reading multi-generational sagas will also find much to discuss.