Author: Anouk Markovits
Genre: Fiction (Eastern Europe / WWII / Jewish Life / Immigrants / Conservative Religious Community)
Publisher/Publication Date: Hogarth (5/8/2012)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Liked a great deal.
Did I finish?: Yes, I raced through it.
One-sentence summary: The story of two Romanian Jews, orphaned after WWII, and their tangled relationship with their faith and community.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, Immigrant Stories
Do I like the cover?: I do -- it indicates a very specific scene and captures the austere feel of the community.
I'm reminded of...: Talia Carner, Evan Fallenberg, Ellen Feldman
First line: Light, fast, Zalman's heels rapped the ground as he ran, naked, down the center aisle of the House of Prayer.
Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow or buy -- this is a fast read, sad but beautiful, compelling, an immigrant narrative and a story of faith.
Why did I get this book?: I am fascinated by conservative religious communities, and I love anything WWII related.
Review: I started this book on Friday morning and I had to make myself put it down to go to bed Friday night. I then ignored my wife Saturday morning to finish. I raced through this book because I loved the two main(ish) female characters; their world might have been alien to me but I felt like I knew them, and I had to know where they ended up.
This is essentially a family saga, beginning around World War II and ending in about 2007. Starting in Romania in the late 1920s, the story roughly follows two Jewish children, Josef and Mila, who are part of a conservative Hasidic sect. Orphaned by violent antisemitism and World War II, Josef and Mila are taken in by Zalman Stern and his family; Josef is eventually sent to New York City to study with the community's beloved rabbi while Mila moves with the Sterns to Paris. Mila becomes close to Zalman's daughter Atara.
Faced with the secular world so directly, the Sterns also struggle with the changing mores and values in the Jewish community -- Zionism, reform movements, lingering antisemitism -- and eventually both Mila and Atara are sent to a conservative seminary to study before their arranged marriages. It is there that Atara and Mila discover they want different lives: Atara wants to go to university while Mila wants only to make a good marriage.
This might seem like a very simple set-up but I'm not conveying the real heft and beautiful mood of the story. Mila's marriage is as typical and atypical as one might imagine, and the results of her choices are staggering. I teared up more than once but had to keep reading -- I was absolutely in love with Mila and Atara, and I wished this novel was double the length so I could have spent more time with them. (My sole complaint, I suppose, is that Atara's side wasn't fleshed out as much as I would have liked, but that would have derailed this book's arc.)
This is a novel about community, belonging, faith and family, about love and desperation and everything in between. It's a meaty story that reads airy, and despite the fact that I know nothing about this religious community, I understood and empathized with the characters. They were so real, and so human, and I they captured me from the first page. I miss them already.
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