Picking up this book felt intimidating – it’s Jonathan Safran Foer, it’s a big nearly-600 page hardback with that caps-locked font and great big looming subject matters: family life, American Jewishness, Israeli Jewishness, Israel, politics, religion, life.
This novel follows Jacob and Julia Bloch, ‘as domestic crises multiply in the foreground, [while] a global disaster is looming on the horizon’, as the blurb puts it. It follows their family – Jacob’s grandfather Issac, his parents Irv and Deborah, sons Sam, Max and Benjy, his cousin Tamir. For me, the real strength of the book was the characters. The story develops that feeling of both fondness and frustration for them which most of us have to the real people in our lives.
Because the characters are so well done, the depiction of family life that this book gives is brilliant – scenes of bustle and confusion with lots of people in one room having three conversations which felt warm and genuine. The children are brilliant, and have some of the best lines in the book. Internal family relationships are lovingly depicted – I wanted more of those moments, but I suspect the point was that they aren’t family life all the time. They come around every so often, and the rest we do and put up with because those times are worth it – because the extra-special bits are held up by all of the ordinary, and that makes the ordinary parts special as well. Maybe.
minor spoilers this para
I did get frustrated with Jacob as the novel went on – as I mentioned in my review of The View on the Way Down, stories which hinge on a difficulty communicating often irritate me a bit. Yet this novel handled those open spaces where things could be said differently and in a way that made it interesting to read about, and while I was cross with characters for not speaking their minds, I had a well-developed enough sense of them to understand why they were unable to say what they wanted to. My frustrations with Jacob were for his inability to step out of his own bubble – all of the things he lets Julia do without realising how much weight she’s shouldering, his need to be innocent of wrongdoing (RE: texts, RE: Other Life), his lack of commitment to decisions. Obviously, characters don’t need to be likable, but I think readers are probably intended to have more sympathy for him than I did.
Honestly, I don’t think this novel needed to be 592 pages long – a lot of it could have been reduced in length to have come to the same place in the end. I wanted the parallel story-line in Israel to come to more by the end of the book, but it was interesting enough that I didn’t feel there was too much wading to do. The structure itself seemed very uneven though – the comparative length between the eight parts the story is told in are wildly disproportionate to each other, and occasionally this threw the pace of the narrative for me.
Overall, would I recommend this? Yes – to certain readers. It depends on your interest in the subject matter, your feelings about long books, etc etc. But I did enjoy it a lot more than I expected to, and my general feelings after putting it down were positive. I’m not going to unreservedly push it at anyone, because I think taste will have a big part to play here, but if you’ve been considering it, then I do believe it’s worth picking up.