Off the Shelf: Family, work and life

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Sometimes knowing the plot details of a novel isn’t enough to give you a true understanding of the work. For example, if a reviewer says a book includes descriptions of marital difficulties, monetary problems, betrayal and writer’s block, you could be forgiven for thinking that it will be incredibly sad, leaving its readers crying and depressed. However, even though “Blank” by Zibby Owens (Little A) contains all those plot elements, it manages to be funny and engaging.

Forty-something Pippa Jones’ life is not exactly falling apart. After all, she’s been married for 17 years to Ethan, a former child actor who now works in the theater, and has two wonderful children. Well, her marital life is no longer really satisfying, but she figures that happens in all long-term marriages. At least, she has three wonderful college friends who are still very present in her life. She’s also the author of a best-selling novel. Unfortunately, her second book is long overdue and the publisher is threatening to make her pay back her advance – money she no longer has. It’s not that she didn’t have a great idea for a novel: she did and was in the midst of writing it when another author published a book with the same plot. Since then, she’s been unable to write anything worthwhile.

To complicate matters, the earnings from Ethan’s work as a child actor aren’t enough to maintain their current lifestyle and his theater work brings in almost no money. Pippa realizes she needs to come up with an idea for a new book, but doesn’t know where to turn. Fortunately, inspiration strikes when her son jokingly says she should publish a blank book. Pippa jumps on the idea and manages to convince her publisher the work would not be a novelty item, but rather a satire on the nature of the publishing world. Although the CEO of her publishing company supports her idea, that may be because he’s looking for something in return. Life is not made easier when social media learns about the book; postings explode – everything for support for the idea to condemnation and threats. The question then becomes whether her book will be enough of a success to pay back her advance and allow her to write and publish a third book. 

Pippa and her family are Jewish, although she doesn’t consider herself particularly observant. However, she does look forward to Shabbat all week: “No matter what we were up to, how much fighting took place between us, or how busy we were, we always stopped to light candles on the kitchen island, recite the three prayers, take sips of wine or seltzer, and rip hunks of challah, shoving them into our mouths before sitting down to dinner or going our separate ways. Whoever invented the Jewish rituals (God?) was one smart cookie. Wine and bread? Twist my arm.” She has fond memories of her daughter’s bat mitzvah and has just scheduled her son’s bar mitzvah lessons, although that date was set when he was in third grade.

Unfortunately, I can’t discuss the most fun parts of the plot because it would spoil the surprises. I will say there were many “OMG, I can’t believe that’s happening” moments. Just when it seems nothing worse could happen, something else awful happens. But, as strange as it sounds, those moments made me both gasp and laugh. Yes, a ton of bad things happen to poor Pippa, but Owens has such a light tone, they are funny. Plus, Pippa proves to be one of the most resilient characters I’ve ever read about. OK, so some part are not realistic, especially when it comes to the book world, but most readers won’t care. I certainly didn’t. 

I initially resisted asking for a review copy of “Blank.” The reason was a combination of not being sure how much Jewish content it contained and that the blank book idea didn’t sound particularly appealing. However, I am so glad I did finally request one: I had a wonderful time reading “Blank.” If you’re looking for an easy, fun, quick read, this is the book for you.