A Reunion of Ghosts
Judith Claire Mitchell
Harper, 2015; 400 pages
The title of this absorbing and darkly comic novel refers to a group of ghosts, and it is a very fitting title. Three smart and sardonic sisters, Jewish New Yorkers with a devastating family history, make a decision to kill themselves on the last day of the 20th century. The novel is the treatise they write as a collective suicide note – something their ghostly ancestors (who all died by their own hands) never had the courtesy to leave to them.
Fate has dealt the middle-aged Alter sisters an unlucky hand. The novel moves back and forth in time between their individual lives and devastating losses to the story of their great-grand-father, Lorenz Otto Alter, whose horrifying sins caused the family curse they believe they have inherited. “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd & 4th generations” is the biblical quote tattooed on the calf of Delph, the youngest sister, and the one who most strongly believes in her family’s twisted fate. “Genius and monster,” they write of their ancestor, “he was the scientist who doomed us all.” Delph lives with her older sisters, Lady and Vee, and they describe themselves as a “partner-less, childless and petless sorority.” They intend to end it all in cosmic atonement for their German scientist great-grandfather’s invention of poison gas – the killing machine of World War I and the precursor to Zyklon B. (The character is based on the controversial Fritz Haber – chemist, Jewish-born Lutheran, and friend of Einstein who fled from the Nazis before his sinister chemical concoctions could kill him.) The details of the difficult Alter family legacy give the reader insight into their motivations and we are put in the position of oddly empathizing with their macabre desire while hoping they will find a way out of doing the final deed.
We like the sisters and root for them. It’s true that they are depressed and haunted by the past, but they find droll humor in the darkness. Lady’s first suicide attempt reads like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Of course, knowing she did not succeed helps, but even she says from her hospital bed: “Someday this will be funny.” And there are laughs through-out the book, from the 19th century portrait of Otto Von Bismarck hanging over the toilet to the offhand inclusion of the travails of Nim Chimpsky, the chimp who knows sign language. The themes of fate, coincidence, family ties and family curses, and the power of genetics are all bound up in the sisters’ smart and acerbic observations. This is what keeps us reading and on edge with hope for their redemption.
Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind
Riverhead Books, 2014; 400 pages
When journalists decide to explore their family roots, it often makes for absorbing reading. From Daniel Mendelsohn’s Lost and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit to Roger Cohen’s recent The Girl from Human Street, readers willingly follow these dedicated and talented researchers in their quests. But in this captivating book, author Sarah Wildman attempts to reconstruct the life of a rather peripheral member of her family, her grandfather’s ill-fated lover whom he left behind when he escaped Vienna in 1938. Her name has never been mentioned by any of Wildman’s own family members.
After her beloved grandfather’s death, Wildman found a cache of love letters hidden away in some old files. He was a doctor who had graduated from the University of Vienna and escaped with his immediate family six months after Hitler annexed Austria. His girlfriend’s family did not make the same fortuitous choice. Wildman had never heard this story and her search to find out what happened to Valy Sheftel became a personal obsession. Thanks to some clever detective work, and a few lucky breaks, Wildman recreates three years in the life of this one woman with such precision that the reader feels the day to day restrictions and deportations, and the pathos as Valy pleads for help with emigration. Her letters are interspersed with descriptions of historical events. Wildman’s own pregnancy impacts the narrative, as well, as she shares tales of odd roommates in Berlin and Vienna and finds herself uncomfortable while following possibly fruitless leads. It’s a wonder she didn’t quit.
Wildman’s “you-are-there” brand of storytelling follows the sickening course of events with palpable tension as the vise is being closed around the Jewish population of Vienna. It is a true account, backed by actual letters and Germany’s own efficient paper trail, which she has painstakingly reconstructed, learning about her-self and her grandfather in the process. It’s Wildman’s obsession, but it is a righteous obsession and a significant addition to our understanding of the Holocaust.
NOTE: The paperbook edition of Paper Love will be out in October.
Counterpoint, 2014; 304 pages
Elizabeth Rosner has a rare mix of talents. Both a poet and a novelist, she blends these two skills with such ease that her novels flow with a lyrical beauty that transcends the plotline and provides us with many moments to stop and simply treasure her remarkable way with words.
Electric City, her most recent novel, moves back and forth in time between the early 20th century fascination with all things electric (in Schenectady, New York, General Electric’s “company town”), and the changing America of the 1960s and ’70s reflected in the city’s decline. The mathematician Charles Proteus Steinmetz, a German immigrant and colleague/rival of Thomas Edison, figures prominently in the novel. Also prominent are the descendants of those Steinmetz adopted, keeping his vow never to father children of his own. Steinmetz and his experiments with electric current serve as the backdrop to the love triangle between Sophie Levine, a Jewish teenager, Henry Van Curler, the son of the town’s wealthiest family, and Martin Longboat, a Mohawk whose roots extend back farther than the town itself. Sophie’s scientist father and her mother were drawn to what was known as “Electric City” after the Holocaust, and they spent their lives working for GE. When the teenage Sophie finds herself in the company of these particular boys, in the summer of 1968, they create lasting friendships that overcome the slow dying of their town due to pollution, discrimination, and the inevitable march of history. At 16, Sophie’s life changes. We are touched by the intimacy of first love, the enormity of the American immigrant experience, the legacy of indigenous people, and the last gasps of a dying town.
Fig Tree Books, 2015; 371 pages
It’s the summer of 1994 on Kibbutz Sadot Hadar near the city of Haifa, a small but proud agricultural community in the process of profound change. Israeli society as a whole appears to be on the brink of change, as well. Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat are about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but municipal buses are being bombed regularly. Three strangers arrive as kibbutz volunteers: Ulya, a licentious beauty from the former Soviet Union with big dreams; Adam, a Jewish New Yorker and recovering drug addict on a mission; and Claudette, a mentally disturbed young Catholic from Quebec with an agonizing past. Each is searching for redemption although none can imagine how the summer will change them forever.
Ziva, the kibbutz matriarch who arrived from Vienna before the Holocaust, founded the kibbutz with her future husband, became a widow in the War of Independence, and is living out her days, suffering from a variety of conditions, but never once taking a day off from work. But times are changing. The kibbutz can no longer sustain itself without both Arab laborers and outside volunteers, and no one even thinks of raising kids in the children’s house anymore. A vote is looming – should people be paid differential wages for different work? To Ziva, it is the beginning of the end of what she devoted her life to achieving. To the other three, whose lives intersect with hers, it is a way out of their sea of troubles.
Adam is a depressive who self-medicates with alcohol and drugs. He steals and sells a fabulous medieval jeweled brooch from his grandfather to pay off drug dealers, then commits another crime in his desperation to get it back and give it to the one he believes is its rightful owner. Claudette is affected by a serious case of OCD, and Ulya has lied about everything, including her Jewish background, in order to escape her dismal prospects back home. These women are unlikely and unlikable roommates on a collision course with Adam and perhaps Ziva as well. Can these characters make the decisions that will save their futures? The writing of the final scenes of redemption is emotionally charged and beautifully done. Although the characters may not be people you would want to spend one moment of your time with, they are realistic, flawed people who are trans-formed by the novel’s end.