Off the Shelf: Relationships and money by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Money: it plays a major role in our relationships, even if we hesitate to admit it. Our sensibilities are offended if someone suggests we made a decision based on anything other than love. However, what we do for our family – or what we allow our family members to do – is often influenced by the funds available. Two recent novels show how money – or the lack of it – can bring people together or drive them apart. While “The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals” by Becky Mandelbaum (Simon and Schuster) focuses on a parent-child relationship, Adam Wilson explores that of a husband and wife in “Sensation Machines” (Soho). 

What happens when a person follows her passion, even though it negatively affects her relationship with her daughter and husband? In “The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals,” Mona Siskin’s dream to open an animal sanctuary became real with money she inherited from her late father. Moving with her to a very rural section of Kansas were her poet husband and her daughter, Ariel. Mona’s husband leaves first, claiming he came second to the animals. By 2016, when the novel opens, Ariel has not seen or spoken to her mother for six years, ever since she left for college against Mona’s wishes. Even though Ariel received a scholarship to go to a better school out of town, her mother expected her to go to a local community college and continue to work at the sanctuary. Reading about an antisemitic incident, the burning of the sanctuary’s barn, Ariel decides to visit the home she once loved. 

The sanctuary is a mess and far too many of the animals aren’t well cared for. Mona is not welcoming, although she is happy to put Ariel to work. Ariel’s life is complicated by the fact she doesn’t tell her mother or the sanctuary’s hired help, Gideon, that she is engaged to her boyfriend, Dex. Her emotions about Dex are in flux and it doesn’t help that she still finds herself attracted to Gideon, who was her first lover. Dex, whose only career plans seem to be having a good time and playing video games, pales in comparison to the hardworking Gideon. Ariel wonders if it is possible to save the sanctuary, although Mona starts to welcome its loss. She is tired of the never-ending hard work and is looking forward to some peace.

Mandelbaum does an excellent job offering insights into the minds of Ariel, Mona and Dex, whose thoughts are featured in different chapters. While it is clear that they care for each other, they can’t always bridge the gaps that exist between their actions and their emotions. The novel manages to balance the past and the present to show how their dilemmas slowly developed – something that allows readers to care for all these characters, even when their words and actions could have been better chosen. It also portrays a love of animals – particularly dogs – and the sheer impossibility of saving all those who have been abused by humans. “The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals” will warm readers’ hearts with its portrait of a stubborn mother and daughter reaching out to each other – each hoping that love remains.

While “The Bright Side Sanctuary for Animals” takes place in contemporary times, “Sensation Machines” offers a vision of our near future. Although it could be described as a dystopia, it’s not science fiction or fantasy. Its world is very real and close enough to our own to make its reality chilling. Homelessness is on the increase because of coastal flooding and unemployment is high due to automation. Congress is poised to pass a universal basic income law, but there are strong forces opposed – forces that plan to manipulate social media in new and interesting ways. Societal changes haven’t stopped people from having problems in their personal life, though, in this case Michael and Wendy Mixner, whose marriage has been troubled since their child was born stillborn. Although he is a Wall Street trader, Michael has made some disastrous decisions concerning the couple’s finances and, to compound the problem, has not mentioned his losses to Wendy. Wendy, who works for a small, quirky public-relations firm, is tapped to lead the marketing charge for a product so secret its creator won’t even tell the PR firm what it is. When a Wall Street trader who is a friend of Michael’s is murdered, it also becomes clear that societal improvements have not included the justice system.

Although Wilson does an excellent job creating a wide variety of characters from different social classes, what stands out is his understanding of what led to the creation of the world he describes. He notes the people who inhabit this society “value entertainment over accuracy.... [they] are the Twitter babies and their Instagram spawn, trawling cyberspace armed with vast qualities of speculation they can’t help but mistake [opinion] for fact. They accept the rules of the game in which what’s called the truth is simply the loudest sound. I am what you say I am.” He offers both sides of the debate about offering people a universal basic income, while also suggesting how much of their personal data people would be willing to give in exchange for a fee.

Yet, the Michaels and the Wendys of this story have it easier than many of the other characters about whom Wilson writes, particularly those who don’t have the advantages the Mixners see as their birthright. The only flaw in the novel is that its ending focuses on them, rather than on a miscarriage of justice. One might say, though, that the flaw is merely an echo of the world in which they (and we) live – a society more concerned with those who have money or who are of a particular social class. That makes “Sensation Machines” an interesting, challenging and absorbing novel.