Off the Shelf: Family, friends and love by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Sometimes the way you feel about a book depends not only on your mood, but what else you’ve read recently. Before reading the novels in this review, I’d been actively engaged in two different, very exciting fantasy series. The second in one series ended with a cliff hanger and I so wanted to read the final book, but was afraid I wouldn’t have time to finish reading and writing this review if I started the series’ long (more than 500 page) conclusion. I also wondered if that would mean these novels wouldn’t engage my interest because my mind was still focused elsewhere. To my surprise, they not only kept my interest, but made me care deeply about their characters. That was impressive, especially in light of the serious nature of their plots.

“Separation Anxiety”

It began as a clever plot idea, but turned out to be much more. Judy, the narrator of Laura Zigman’s funny, sweet and sad “Separation Anxiety” (Ecco), is so distressed that she starts wearing the family dog in a baby sling. The reason for her anxiety is understandable: Her marriage is breaking up, her son is growing up and no longer confides in her, her career has hit the skids and her best friend is dying. Both her parents passed away not long before and Judy still grieves their loss. So, who can blame her for finding comfort by keeping her dog close? As she notes, “If the dog is helping me survive these dark days, then good for me. I shouldn’t be ashamed. In fact, I should be applauded for finding a harmless, nonalcoholic, nonnarcotic, noncannibanoid solution to my pain. (Right?)”

Life becomes even more complex when problems arise at her son’s alternative school. Judy also has to find a way to separate from the husband she still loves (due to financial reasons they share the house) while keeping their marital problems a secret from their son. To help defray tuition payments, they agree to host two young puppeteers – actually two people who dress as animals and pretend to be puppets – who are putting on a show at the school. 
If this sounds complicated, it’s because Judy’s life is messy no matter how much she wants to simplify it. In spite of (or maybe because of) this, the novel is laugh-at-loud funny at times and poignant at others. Judy is a wonderful mixed-up character whose emotional ups and downs left me in tears – that is, when I wasn’t laughing. Zigman’s novel is about second chances – the chance to make things right and appreciate the small joys in your life. This is also Zigman’s second chance; it’s been years since she published a novel. Her acknowledgments at the end of the book note that her parents didn’t live long enough to see it published. All I can says is, “Laura, your parents would have been so proud of you.”

“In Five Years”

For some reason, I thought “In Five Years” by Rebecca Serle (Atria Books) was going to be a light, romantic comedy. Rarely have I been so happy to be mistaken about a book. Its narrator, Dannie Kohan, is a believer in numbers who lists the minutes it takes her to do everything from getting dressed to walking to work. She also notes the correct number of months to know someone before moving in with them and the right ages to be engaged and married. So far, her work life and her home life are going exactly as planned. This includes her wonderful boyfriend, David, who moved in with her at exactly the right time, and her marvelous, but impulsive, friend Bella, who prefers never to plan. Next up on her agenda is a job interview for the perfect job and the knowledge that David is going to propose that evening.

Everything does seem to be going according to plan, that is until Dannie has a very realistic dream of what her life will be like five years in the future: She wakes up in a different apartment with someone other than David. It’s a dream she has difficulty shaking, especially when, after almost five years go by, she meets that man. To say more would spoil the plot, except to note that life is going to throw Dannie some curve balls she’ll have difficulty dodging. 
While the plot of “In Five Years” is wonderfully inventive, what makes this more than just a clever idea is that Serle has created a great character in Dannie. The novel also surprised me by going in a completely different direction than I expected. This work was so good that I ordered a copy of the author’s first novel.

“Florence Adler Swim Forever” 

Something very dramatic happens in the first chapter of “Florence Adler Swims Forever” by Rachel Beanland (Simon and Schuster) that affects all the members of the Adler family. The story takes place in Atlantic City in 1934 and Florence Adler’s plans to swim the English Channel are set. Her niece, Gussie, is staying with Florence and her parents, Esther and Joseph, in an apartment above the family bakery because their house is rented out to tourists for the summer. Gussie’s mother, Fannie, is in the hospital on bed rest due to a problem pregnancy, and her father, Isaac, doesn’t spend much time with either Gussie or his wife. 

After the dramatic event happens, Esther is determined to protect Fannie from the bad news and forbids anyone to mention it to her. The ripples from that decision affect not only family members, but Anna, a young woman from Germany who is staying with the family, and Stuart, the non-Jewish swim coach whose feelings for Florence are more than platonic. The author speaks through all the different characters, revealing their thoughts and relationships to each other, which adds great depth to the novel.

“Florence Adler Swims Forever” does a wonderful job showing how life can change in a single moment. The ending took an unexpected turn, which allows readers to see that for some people even the good moments in life can be tinged with sorrow. In her author’s note, Beanland summarizes her story by writing that it tells of “what we are willing to do to protect the people we love.” Perhaps not everyone in her novel does just that, but it’s heart-warming to see characters who care so greatly for each other and are willing to break their own hearts to save another.

“Other People’s Pets”

I don’t normally like to give away too many plot details of the books I read because it feels unfair to ruin the surprises. With that in mind, I am willing to say that “Other People’s Pets” by R. L. Maizes (Celadon Books) is the only novel in this review that does not contain a moment of great tragedy. That doesn’t mean that La La, the main character, has led any easy life. Things seem to finally be on track for her now, though. She’s in the last year of her studies to be a veterinarian and her boyfriend, Clem, not only loves her, but happily tolerates her quirks. Things change when La La’s father, Zev, is arrested for burglary and faces serious charges because the victim had a heart attack and is in the hospital. 

La La knows that her father is a burglar and, in fact, after her mother deserted them when she was very young, she took part in the robberies. That changed after she and her father were arrested, and he took the blame to keep her from having a record. But the lawyer bills are expensive and La La needs to raise money for the one person who may be able to keep Zev from jail. The only way she knows to get those funds is to rob houses. But she decides not to steal from just any house. La La is an animal empath and can sense when an animal is suffering, so she robs only those houses with an animal in pain and cares for the pet while she is there.

What makes La La an intriguing character is that she can’t relate to her fellow humans. She knows when animals aren’t feeling well, but can’t sense human discomfort. Her unusual childhood hasn’t helped. Yet, La La also craves to connect to the people she knows, even though she believes everyone will desert her – just like her mother did. While I didn’t agree with most of her decisions, I came to admire her for being willing to put her life on hold to help her father – even if that decision could negatively affect her life forever. “Other People’s Pets” highlights the power of connection, even as it shows all the ways people keep each other at arm’s length.