CJL: A romance, a marriage saga and detective stories

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“The Phoenix Bride”

An impossible romance between a Jew and a Christian in England in 1665: that’s one of the many interesting plot elements offered in the very moving “The Phoenix Bride” by Natasha Siegel (Dell). It’s only been 10 years since the once expelled Jewish population has been allowed to return to England and physician David Mendes is well aware his position is precarious. A Jewish doctor can easily be accused of murder if a non-Jewish patient dies. But that doesn’t stop him from attending to Cecilia Thorowgood, a young Christian widow suffering from a broken heart who is practically imprisoned in her sister’s townhouse in London. Their first meeting reminds them both of the wounds they bear: Cecilia mourns her husband who was lost to the plague, just as David misses a dear friend – a deeply loved friend – who was also lost to the same disease. 

David’s employment was a last gasp measure since Cecilia’s sister and brother-in-law have no love for the Jews on their shore. But they do have plans for Cecilia’s future – ones she is not privy to at first – and need her well enough to fulfil them. David keeps a professional distance from his patient, but Cecilia soon discovers he is the only person she can confide in and with whom she feels comfortable. That leaves her wanting more. But David has his own sorrows to overcome: the realization that he couldn’t cure those he loved, something that makes him feel like a failure as a physician and which colors his personal life.

The course of their love is not smooth and the novel’s ending may not please some readers since there are no miraculous fairytale happily ever afters in “The Phoenix Bride,” just humans struggling to create meaningful lives in the midst of hardships. The novel offers many topics for discussion: the uncertainty the Jews of England felt about their place in British society, the lack of control women had over their lives during that time period and the way people were forced to conform to societal mores, even at the cost of their personal happiness. This excellent novel will break and heal readers’ hearts.

“Falling Through the Night”

Many novels focus on one of two time periods: the romance that occurs before someone marries or the problems a couple faces after they wed. “Falling Through the Night” by Gail Marlene Schwartz (Demeter Press) portrays the development of a relationship before and during marriage. However, neither period is easy for queer 30-something Audrey Meyerwitz, who longs for a partner and children. Unfortunately, she suffers from deep anxiety, panic attacks and insomnia. She’s also never completely come to terms with her family of origin: Audrey was adopted by a woman whom she considers her mother. However, her mother now focuses on her younger foster children – most of whom also have disabilities – and now has little energy for helping Audrey.

Fortunately, Audrey’s good friend Jessica helps her set up an account on a dating site where she meets Denise, a French Canadian. It doesn’t spoil the plot (since it’s revealed in the summary offered on the book jacket) to note that the two manage – with misgivings and problems – to marry and start a family. The book then explores the difficulties of married life – not only those of balancing a home life with friendships, but the complex decisions someone with mental health issues must make to protect herself. Some of the decisions made are heart-rending for Audrey and the reader. Audrey also learns that life is far messier than she expected, particularly when her fantasies of an ideal family must be given up in order to create a world in which she can successfully cope. She also learns that there is no guarantee for continued happiness: she must always be alert to the dangers that threaten her and her family.

Parts of “Falling Through the Night” felt more like vignettes, offering short scenes of different parts of Audrey’s life, than a complete novel, but, by its end, the scenes come together to show a fuller portrait. At times, readers may lose patience with Audrey, but that is one of the novel’s lessons: showing just how hard it is to live with the mental health issues Audrey faces every day. 

“The Cost of Living and Other Mysteries”

Frank Wolf is not your average private detective. Having lived through World War II in hiding with his wife and daughter, this former professor of philosophy moved to Brooklyn, taking whatever work he could find before hanging up his sign as a detective in the 1970s. In “The Cost of Living and Other Mysteries” by Saul Golubcow (Wildside Press), Wolf’s grandson, Joel Gordon, narrates three of Wolf’s cases. Gordon, both while in law school and then as a lawyer, serves as a legman for his grandfather by helping him gather information in order to solve and prevent murders.

The first two mysteries are relatively short: one concerns a kosher butcher who was murdered and the other an 8-year-old Chasidic child who disappeared on his way home from school. In the former, an insurance company asks Wolf to investigate since the deceased recently took out a very large insurance policy. It’s the detective’s knowledge of Jewish customs that reveals the true killer. Jewish knowledge also plays a role in the second case and offers insight into the close society of ultra-religious members of the Jewish community.

The third and longest story features a cold case: the police have been unable to discover who murdered a 16-year-old yeshiva student three years before. The student’s father is a client at the law firm where Gordon now works. He asks Wolf and Gordon to solve the case so he and his wife can finally find peace. I thought I knew not only who the murderer was, but his/her motive early in the story. I was completely wrong in both cases. The story’s ending was a bit convoluted, but ultimately convincing.

“The Cost of Living and Other Mysteries” reads half like the hard-boiled detective novels that Wolf loves and half like a Sherlock Holmes mystery where answers are pulled from thin air. Part of the fun is watching Gordon try to discern his grandfather’s thoughts and decisions. The work will appeal to mystery lovers looking for plots with Jewish content.