Off the Shelf: Bonding over adverse circumstances

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

It’s often a matter of luck who our neighbors are. We pick a house based on a variety of factors, but rarely do we interview the people who live next door or across the street before making a decision. Yet, those neighbors can have a great impact on our lives as seen in two recent novels: “Signal Fires” by Dani Shapiro (Alfred A. Knopf) and “Never Meant to Meet You” by Alli Frank and Asha Youmans (Montlake). 

Shapiro’s novel opens in 1985 with an example of youthful stupidity that ends with disaster and which resonates throughout the rest of Sarah and Theo Wilf’s lives. It also has a profound effect on their father, Dr. Ben Wilf. The story then moves forward and backward through the years – 2010, 1999, 2020 and 2014 – to not only show how their lives were affected by that disaster, but Ben’s connection with a neighbor’s son, Waldo. Waldo is an unusual child: he is a brilliant, social disaster whose father does not know how to talk with him without yelling and demanding he change. Readers learn how Sarah and Theo have moved forward without dealing with the guilt of their teenage years and see how life has changed for Ben since dementia has claimed his beloved wife, Mimi, who lives in a nursing home. One snowy night in 2010, the characters converge for what might become another disastrous event: this time, one not of their own making. 

It’s difficult to write about “Signal Fires” without giving away the plot that is best discovered while turning its pages. Although the novel focuses on family members who are unable to connect, at its heart it offers a lesson on the importance of those connections, especially the ones that occur unexpectedly. The relationship between Ben and Waldo is particularly poignant, considering that Ben and his children are not on close terms and that Waldo’s father seems unable to show his appreciation for his son, even though he does love him. 

“Signal Fires” is beautiful and profoundly sad. The cosmic connections Waldo sees offer readers the possibility that no one is ever completely lost. That may resonate with those who have suffered a loss this past year. However, whether or not readers agree with Waldo’s idea, they should be moved by Shapiro’s intense tale of fragile humans striving to discover compassion and love in a difficult world.

Loss also plays a role in “Never Meant to Meet You.” The narrator, Marjette Lewis, has vowed never again to become involved in her neighbors’ business and has remained distant from her new neighbor, Noa Abrams. Yet, when she sees Noa sitting on the porch of her house looking less like her perfect self, Marjette can’t help but try to discover what happened. It turns out that Noa has suffered a tragic loss and the two neighbors slowly begin to connect. 

African American Marjette goes to her first shiva, bringing her fried chicken and her common sense on what best serves someone in distress. When it turns out that Noa’s daughter, Esty, is in Marjette’s kindergarten class, the two women grow closer. Yet, Marjette feels there is more to Noa’s story than she first thought and slowly learns why Noa is in such pain. That brings her own sorrows – her divorce and struggles with money – to the forefront. Marjette also worries about her son, Darius, who is in high school and has a girlfriend. She wants him to go to college and worries if he’ll do something that will be disastrous for his future.

Watching the two households interact – particularly when Darius begins to babysit Esty – shows how friends can become family. Not that the road is easy. The two women don’t always understand each other’s cultures and have to navigate those fault lines. Then there’s the question of Noa’s extremely handsome brother, Max, whom Marjette finds attractive, even though she has not dated since her divorce. The two women begin to learn from each other and even appreciate the connections and understanding that come from being part of a minority. 

While “Never Meant to Meet You” has its serious moments, it also contains a great deal of humor. Many of the scenes in her classroom show how Marjette’s attempts to control her life and class can go awry in unexpected ways, especially when dealing with her students’ parents. Readers will also enjoy watching Marjette discovering that there may be more to life than she expected, and seeing Noa recover from her loss.