Celebrating Jewish Literature: Work, family, comedy and deep feelings

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When looking at novels for review, I’m sometimes unable to tell if they feature Jewish characters. If I am really interested in a book, I’ve been known to go to great lengths – from making numerous web searches for the “title/author + Jewish,” to writing to an author through his/her website – to find out if any of the characters are Jewish. I was delighted to discover that both “Bookish People” by Susan Coll (Harper Muse) and “Small World” by Laura Zigman (Ecco) have Jewish main characters because the former sounded like fun and I’m a big fan of the latter. 

Readers and lovers of independent bookstores will automatically be drawn to “Bookish People.” Jewish Sophie Bernstein, who owns the bookstore, “sometimes thinks the world divides into two types of people, those who think books are for reading when there’s nothing else to do, and those who avoid other things to do in order to read books.” Although she normally finds herself in the latter category, she now admits to being “a little bit sick of books.” That’s understandable: Sophie’s husband died recently and her college graduate son has no practical plans for the future. On top of this, the store’s manager is moving from D.C. and Sophie worries no one will be able to replace him. All these problems help explain why she’s considering moving into a small room in the store that’s hidden by a secret door – a room no one else knows about. 

Her life is not made easier by the fact that the person who bought the parking lot that the store uses keeps calling, calls she doesn’t want to answer. Plus, several events scheduled for the store are causing some controversy: everything from a protest against a reading by an author whose book claims cats are destroying the bird population to potential violent threats against Raymond Chaucer, a brilliant poet whom some people believe drove his wife to suicide. Sophie wants Clemi, who runs the events, to cancel Raymond’s appearance, but Clemi has reasons of her own for wanting him to appear. She knows he had an affair with her mother, an agent who once worked with him, and may be her father. The protests, the problems with the store’s vacuum cleaner (which plays a larger role than one might imagine), a lawsuit for an absurd reason, electrical problems and wonderful end-of-day e-mail reports offer a great blend of comedy that is almost slapstick at times.

The novel does have undertones of seriousness. The action takes place just after the racist march in Charlottesville, VA: the chants of “Jews shall not replace us” don’t help Sophie’s frame of mind. She is confused by the mixed feelings she has about the store since working there was originally a labor of love. Anyone “who avoid[s] other things to do in order to read books” will enjoy “Bookish People,” especially its ending, which successfully brings together its many plot strands.

While “Bookish People” contains a great deal of humor, “Small World” is far more serious. When taking a quick peek at its plot online, I only noted that it was the story of two divorced sisters, Joyce and Lydia, who moved in together after living on different coasts for almost 30 years. What I had not realized is that they once had another sister, Eleanor, who had cerebral palsy, a seizure disorder and developmental problems. Until her death at the age of 10, Eleanor was the main focus of their mother Louise’s life. Even after she died, Louise dedicated her life to helping the families of those with disabilities, while, at the same time, ignoring her other daughters. Now that their mother is gone, Joyce hopes she and Lydia can become the friends she always wanted them to be. 

Unfortunately, the two sisters seem unable to connect, particularly after new neighbors move in upstairs. The noise they create disturbs Joyce who works from home archiving other people’s family photos and videos. Lydia comes to appreciate the neighbors, something that creates an additional division between the sisters. Some of these sections are actually quite funny, particularly when one or the other sister is unable to appreciate the humor of their misunderstandings. What really divides the two sisters, though, are secrets – secrets not only from their childhood, but about their current situation. These prevent them from truly understanding each other. When revealed, they change not only the sisters’ relationship, but the way they view their family history. 

Parts of their family history is heart-wrenching. For example, Zigman writes about the guilt that Louise felt about what happened to Eleanor, even though she clearly did the best she could. The author also notes how this made her other daughter feel. Joyce clearly believes that she and Lydia mattered less to Louise than did Eleanor, and thinks, “You will also know in some fundamental way that you are unable to articulate but that feels as natural and as constant as breathing, that whatever you and Lydia do or say or accomplish or become in life will never feel like it matters as much” as what happened to Eleanor.

“Small World” is a beautiful, moving work about family and love. The author’s portrayal of the sisters’ conflicting emotions about Eleanor – love, embarrassment and concern, while still wishing to just have their parents to themselves at times – are extremely well done because all those emotions can occur at the same time. On a personal note, I understood what Joyce and Lydia were experiencing. However, the novel also made me extremely grateful for my parents, who never made me feel as if my life didn’t matter. Zigman has produced another wonderful novel.