Off the Shelf: Through the generations

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Almost everyone has something in their past they would prefer not be made public. Sometimes it’s just a minor embarrassment, but other times, it’s a secret that not only affects their life, but that of their children. These secrets can cause deep misunderstandings between generations, making it impossible for members of a family to truly understand each other. Secrets form the core of two new novels: “In the Shadow of the Greenbrier” by Emily Matchar (G. P. Putnam’s Sons) and “Mother Doll” by Katya Apekina (The Overlook Press). The characters in each only learn to understand each other when the hidden parts of their past are revealed.

A true event inspired Matchar’s work, which is set around the real life Greenbrier Resort located in White Sulphur Springs, WV. However, her real interest is to portray how living near the Greenbrier affected four generations of the fictitious Zelner family. In 1992, Jordan, who had recently begun working at The Washington Post as a reporter, receives an anonymous letter telling him the Greenbrier has a secret worth revealing. Jordan knows his mother Doree prefers not to talk about her life in White Sulphur Springs since her mother and brother died there in a mysterious automobile accident when she was still young. Doree narrates the section that takes place in 1958, complaining about having to help her socially clueless younger brother, Alan, who gets into trouble due to his lack of social graces. She also clashes with her mother, Sylvia.

In 1942, Sylvia notes how unhappy she is with her marriage to Louis and her life in White Sulphur Springs. Although she has recently given birth to Doree, she still misses the cosmopolitan life she left behind in Europe. She and Louis live with his parents, Sol and Pauline. Although Pauline has made it clear that she doesn’t approve of her daughter-in-law, Sol helps make life tolerable. To complicate matters, Sylvia is upset that the Greenbrier is being used to house German and Italian diplomats now that the U.S. has entered World War II. She resents that they are living in comfort when she doesn’t know if her relatives in Poland are safe or even alive. However, when she’s offered a chance to sew for an Italian diplomat, she wonders if the extra money might provide a way to escape her dull and boring life.

However, Sylvia is not the only member of the family to have emigrated to the United States. Sol came to the U.S. from Lithuania in 1909 to escape being recruited by the czar’s army. Making his way to the U.S. on his own, he becomes a traveling peddler. After an upsetting event, he has the opportunity to open a store in White Sulphur Springs. But even in that seemingly safe small town, he learns that being Jewish means one’s life will never be easy.

Matchar alternates the narration between the four different characters, which allow readers to slowly piece together the true story of what occurred in White Sulphur Springs. However, the secret of what happened at the Greenbrier is the least of the revelations. What, at first, seemed like an almost mundane family saga turned into a surprising and moving work. Most of the secrets revealed were inspired and completely unexpected. The ending of “In the Shadow of the Greenbrier “ was bittersweet and satisfying. The choices the characters made are open to debate, making this an excellent work for book clubs. 

While “In the Shadow of the Greenbrier “ offers insights from four different characters, “Mother Doll” concentrates on two: Zhenia and her great-grandmother Irena. However, Apekina uses their voices to help readers understand the two intermediate generations – Marina, who is Zhenia’s mother, and Vera, Marina’s mother and Irena’s daughter – that connect them. However, rather than have separate sections for her two main characters, she has Zhenia talk to her dead great-grandmother through a medium called Paul.

The timing for Irena’s appearance is not great: although Zhenia and her husband, Ben, said they did not want to have children, Zhenia finds herself pregnant and desperately wants to keep the baby. Ben, however, feels she is imposing her wishes on him. Their marriage has never been in the best of shape: Zhenia acknowledges she’s never loved Ben and she cheated on him while they lived together before their marriage. Her beloved grandmother Vera is dying, which means that the only person Zhenia feels ever really loved her will soon be no more. Zhenia never knew her father before the family left Russia when she was 5, and she feels no affection for her stepfather and little connection to her half-brother. Unfortunately for readers, Zhenia comes across as a selfish, rather unpleasant person who instigates unnecessary arguments to create drama.

Irena has some of the same traits as her great-granddaughter. All Zhenia knew of her is that Irena left Vera at an orphanage in Russia when she was 4. Then she traveled to the United States, had another family and never tried connect to her first child. However, Irena also had a difficult childhood. After the death of her father, her mother sent her to live with relatives who did not greatly involve themselves in her life. At the school she attended, Irena became involved in the revolutionary, anti-czarist movement. Yet, her actions were based less on political zeal than her desire to be part of a group – first through a teacher at school and then through another student who was active in plotting to overthrow the government. At times, Irena’s behavior feels inexcusable, although she always finds a way to justify her actions.

While listening to Irena, Zhenia comes to understand more about the relationship between Vera and Marina, which helps explain not only the interaction between her mother and grandmother, but about her own upbringing. The question then becomes whether Zhenia can find it in herself to excuse her great-grandmother’s actions without betraying her grandmother. She also needs to decide how to live her own life, including finding a way to support herself and the child she is carrying.

The plot of “Mother Doll” is more complex than this summary suggests and includes some unusual digressions. Readers may find it difficult to care about Zhenia and Irena, although watching their interactions – especially when Zhenia truly comes to understand what Irena has done – was the best part of the novel. Its ending was unexpected and not entirely convincing, although it was intriguing. Those who can tolerate works whose characters are challenging to admire may enjoy “Mother Doll.”