Off the Shelf: A wedding and vacation by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Almost nothing challenges families – functional and dysfunctional – as much as time spent together during weddings, funerals and vacations. Old wounds reopen and discontentments rise as people find themselves returning to roles – the good child or the bad apple – that no longer fit. It doesn’t help that some people have unrealistic expectations of family gatherings, for example, expecting them to be a time of great joy – well, except for those who dread them because they view time spent with family as a living hell. Three generations of a dysfunctional family gather for a five-day, four-night cruise in the Caribbean in “The Floating Feldmans” by Elyssa Friedland (Berkley), while a wedding reunites a more functional family in their home town in “Strangers and Cousins” by Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead Books).
The premise of “The Floating Feldmans” is wonderful: take three generations of family members who don’t get along and put them on a boat from which they can’t escape. The reason behind the trip? Annette Feldman decides she wants to celebrate her 70th birthday with her children and grandchildren, even though she hates birthdays and wants no one to talk about her age. Annette and her husband, David, have a secret they’re determined to keep from the other members of the family: David is undergoing treatment for cancer. They are not the only ones with secrets, though: daughter Elsie Feldman Connelly, who was once the golden girl, has gotten herself deeply in debt due to a newly developed shopping addiction. It’s unfortunate that she has not mentioned the problem to her husband because he also has a secret: he’s resigned his newspaper job to start his own business, something he neglected to mention to his wife. Their two children – Rachel (19) and Darius (17) – are also not happy with the forced vacation, but for different reasons. The biggest surprise comes from Freddy Feldman, once considered the family ne’er-do-well, who has made a fortune in the legal marijuana trade, although he’s kept his family in the dark about his riches. Freddy brings his far younger girlfriend, Natasha, on the trip; her age and good looks disguise the fact that she has a keen mind.
The novel opens with a fist fight that occurs during the trip and then moves backward in time to reveal the trepidations all the family members feel about attending the cruise. Forced to spend time together on the boat, the various Feldmans irritate and aggravate each other. Nothing turns out exactly as they expect. What is particularly interesting is the way the author often lets readers see events from more than one point of view. For example, Freddy’s last day at college after being expelled is seen from both his and his mother’s perspective, which offer radically different takes on the event. The author also portrays how family members are often defined by actions that occurred years and even decades ago. It takes time together for the Feldmans to let go of old and new hurts, and see each other as the flawed, but loving, people they are.
“The Floating Feldmans” is a funny and sweet novel that shows how difficult it can be to recognize our own faults and flaws, and forgive those of our parents, siblings and children. Yet, it also demonstrates the importance of family. Annette describes that importance when she notes that “having a family brings obligation. There’s no doubt about that. But through fulfilling obligation, I think can come great joy.” Her family members also serve as “the stars we can call on when we need a little light.” Readers will be glad to attend this cruise, but may also be grateful it’s the Feldmans trapped on that boat, not them.
While “The Floating Feldmans” focuses mostly on family, “Strangers and Cousins” looks at a larger picture, one that includes family, friends and community. Bennie and Walter’s oldest daughter, Clem, is getting married at their family home, which has been part of Bennie’s family for several generations. Included in the invitations is the last remaining member of Bennie’s parents’ generation, her never-married Aunt Glad, who is coming to stay at the house. Bennie not only has to deal with her three younger children, but her sister and her children, and her ne’er-do-well brother, who is also bringing his daughter. To complicate matters, Clem has invited guests – including a dog and a baby – to camp out on the family property days before the wedding. Clem has kept the details of the ceremony secret, although the wedding will be an untraditional, mixed-race lesbian one. The type of wedding doesn’t bother Bennie, but not knowing how many guests to expect and how much food needs to be produced does.
Although Walter is Jewish, he and Bennie have raised their children with no religion, so he is surprised and touched to learn that Clem’s friends have built a chuppah for the ceremony. Clem is not the only one who is not sharing all that’s on her mind. Bennie and Walter have decided not to mention two important things until after the wedding: that Bennie is 10-weeks pregnant at age 44 and that they’ve decided to sell the house. The reason for the sale is partly that the town will be changing: a rumor is spreading that a Chasidic group is building an apartment building outside of town and looking to buy as many houses for its members as possible. Some claim that the apartment building will create ecological problems, although Walter finds it difficult to believe that’s the real reason for their opposition since those opponents are also predicting what will occur when the ultra-Orthodox move in, for example, the public school budget being slashed, something that has occurred in similar situations in other towns. While Walter thinks that antisemitic feelings are partly behind the resistance, Bennie wonders if most people are just resistant to change.
As a counterpoint to the wedding, and Bennie and Walter’s dilemmas, Aunt Glad spends the time at her former home thinking about the definitive event of her life, which took place when she was a young child. Aunt Glad has never spoken to her nieces and nephew about the disaster that occurred and why it still haunts her. Returning to her former home raises memories and Aunt Glad spends as much of her time reviewing the past as she does living in the present. A third layer of story is added when the author writes about the different small animals with whom the humans share their home, even if the humans are unaware of those who live behind and beneath their walls.
The many facets of “Strangers and Cousins” make it an unusual story, one that offers overlapping layers and themes. Although some parts work better than others, the ties between Aunt Glad’s story and that of Walter and Bennie’s add a depth to the work that makes it far more than a tale of an unusual wedding. What is clear is how much the members of this family care about each other, even whey they squabble and, at times, misunderstand each other. However, the most moving section is that of Aunt Glad, when readers not only finally learn her story, but the lesson it taught her about community and strangers.