Off the Shelf: Reviewing the past

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Can we truly understand the past – not only the stories of our relatives, but our own actions – if we don’t know everything that occurred? Can learning a different side to events from years before change the way we view the world? These ideas are explored in two recent novels: “One Italian Summer” by Rebecca Serle (Atria Books) and “Cult Classics” by Sloane Crosley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Each offers a different way for their main character to contemplate their lives based on what they learn. 

Serle’s work has a dramatic opening: the novel begins with its narrator, 30-year-old Katy Silver, sitting shiva for her mother, Carol. Katy’s grief is palpable: she notes her mother was her best friend, the one without whom she rarely made a decision. Katy cannot conceive of a world without Carol, because, as she notes, “My mother, you see, is the great love of my life. She is the great love of my life and I lost her.” This does not bode well for her relationship with her husband, Eric, since Katy is now unsure she wants to remain married: “My decision to leave Eric had less to do with my mother’s death and more to do with the remembrance of death itself. Which is to say I began to ask myself if this was the marriage I wanted to die in, if this was the marriage I wanted to see me through this, my mother’s illness, and what would, impossibly, remain after.” 

Katy and Carol were scheduled to take a long discussed trip to Italy so Carol could show her daughter the city of Positano and the joys she discovered there when she was Katy’s age. Katy decides to travel to Italy on her own to think about her life and to experience the place her mother spoke about so lovingly. What happens once Katy arrives is unexpected: Katy meets her mother, at least a 30-year-old version of Carol. Even though Katy knows this is impossible, she embraces the unimaginable because seeing her mother fills her with joy. Except, of course, there is much Katy doesn’t know, things that make her re-evaluate how she understands the past.

The extremely close relationship between Katy and Carol may disturb some readers. It certainly does Eric: He notes that Katy always consults her mother before making a decision, rather than contemplating what she herself really wants. In fact, Katy mentions that “Eric would sometimes accuse me of heeding [Carol’s] advice to our own – Eric’s and mine – detriment.” In fact, part of Katy’s panic at losing her mother is that she lacks many of the skills her mother had and now feels lost. She finally admits that her mother never taught her how to manage on her own: “I don’t know how to cook; I don’t decorate. I don’t know the right place to order flowers from in the Valley, because I just called her. And now she is gone and I can’t help but think, in this moment, she left me unprepared.”

Ultimately, “One Italian Summer” is a sweet and sentimental novel, something meant as a compliment. There are a few additional plot twists that may surprise readers and which added to the fun. There are also the joys of reading about Italy and Italian food, both of which almost seem like characters in their own right.

While Katy needed to analyze her relationship with her mother, 38-year-old Lola, the narrator of “Cult Classic” has a different dilemma. This sarcastic, obnoxious character suddenly finds herself encountering many of her old boyfriends – there are many of them – and trying to understand why she still feels a connection to them. Although she’s engaged to someone she’s nicknamed Boots, she finds herself re-evaluating her decision to marry. That’s partly because most of her relationships have not been pleasant ones. Lola realizes that this is partly because she and her boyfriends have never managed to see each other as functioning individuals: “So many of my past relationships devolved into fights on public transport or long chains of undignified texts and I’d think: If only I could see you, flipping through your mail. Or either of us, reciting our social security numbers to prove we are ourselves. Where did these seductively functional people go when sex got in the way?”

Lola’s longest relationships are with her former co-workers – Vadis and Zach – at the now defunct magazine Modern Psychology, which was run by Clive Glenn. Clive has a special hold over Lola: they came close to having an affair and this editor turned guru can still manipulate her into becoming involved in activities she might otherwise resist. To complicate matters, Clive and Vadis have something to do with the fact that Lola keeps bumping into men from her past, but the details are confusing both to the reader and Lola, although this does create what suspense the novel contains. To say more would reveal too much of the plot, but the ideas behind Clive’s business will leave some readers shaking their heads. 

What makes “Cult Classics” enjoyable to read, though, is the fact that Lola has a way with words. What redeems this unpleasant character is that she is very funny. Her worldview seems to embody sarcasm, as seen when she compares Boots and Vadis talking together to “watching a daisy and a stapler trying to hold down a conversation.” That’s one of her more polite reactions to other characters. Readers can be excused for being grateful that Lola is not one of their friends, but her personality may grow on them as the laughs continue.