Off the Shelf: Friendship, the Nobel Prize and one minor difficulty

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

It’s difficult to write about some novels without giving away part of the plot. I don’t feel bad in this case because anyone reading the book jacket of “Stockholm” by Noa Yedlin (HarperVia) already knows what happens. In fact, it’s one of the novel’s selling points: Avishay, an Israeli professor, is in the running for a Nobel Prize in economics. There’s only one problem, as his four close friends discover: you have to be alive at the time it’s awarded and one of them just discovered Avishay in his bed dead. This group of 60-somethings debate what they should do and their decision jumpstarts a novel that is part farce and part careful study of the ramifications of friendship.

The group decides they will pretend that Avishay is alive until after the Nobel Prize is announced. That means not telling anyone – that includes his mother, sister and their spouses and/or boyfriend – that he is dead. That also means monitoring his phone and e-mail so people don’t suspect anything is wrong. Oh, and cranking up the air conditioning in his apartment to keep the body from decaying – well, as much as they can. Their desire is complicated by the fact that the novel takes place in Israel, where most burials occur the same day someone dies. Of course, numerous complications occur – ones that will make readers laugh out loud at Avishay’s friends’ attempts to keep anyone from discovering the truth.

But the other part of the novel – the more serious part – focuses on each of the four friends, their personal idiosyncrasies, insecurities and connections to each other. There’s Zohara, who has been having a long-term affair with Avishay, although she believes that no one else knows about their relationship. Yehuda has been friends with Avishay since they were children, while Amos met Avishay after their army service and influenced his choice of career: both men are economics professors, although they focus on different aspects of the field. Nili is the most recent member of the group: the other four had been friends with her ex-husband and, to her surprise, maintained their friendship with her after the divorce.

Each member of the group suffers from insecurities that affect not only their relationship, but their decision to keep Avishay’s death a secret from his family and the general community. Yehuda, who made a fortune with a labor saving device early in his life, has written an autobiography for which Avishay has composed a forward. How wonderful it would be, he thinks, if the cover could say that forward was written by a Nobel prize winner. Amos has mixed feelings about their decision and admits – at least to himself – that he is jealous of the attention his friend is receiving. At the beginning of their careers, he and Avishay attained the same amount of honors, until Avishay somehow became far better known and admired. Zohara is now facing both career problems and her desire to have a successful long-term relationship. She also resents having had to pretend that she and Avishay were just friends. Nili, a retired pediatrician, believes that she is still not completely accepted by the others, especially when they disparage her latest relationship. Of course, there are secrets that are not really secrets; there are also realizations that turn out to have unexpected consequences.

Yedlin does acknowledge the absurd situation the friends find themselves in. At one point, they hold a wonderful discussion about what would occur if they were characters in a novel. They ponder what would be the best ending. Would a happy one – for example, Avishay winning the Nobel – cheapen the book? From a literary point of view, would that make it a bad book? Are sad endings more realistic? But, as another character notes, good things do happen to people in real life. While their dialogue in itself is not funny, the situation is extremely humorous.

The real ending of the book? That part of the plot won’t be revealed here. On the one hand, it felt almost unsatisfactory until it suddenly seemed the only solution, at least as seen through the eyes of one character in particular. “Stockholm” manages to successfully balance its farcical elements with its character studies and its view of the ups and downs of long-term friendships. The author’s note mentions that an Israeli TV series was made of the Hebrew version of the book. I looked online to see if I could find it, but saw that it is currently unavailable in the United States. While I rarely want to view a film/show of a book I’ve enjoyed, this one does sound tempting.