A Jewish boy from a fractured family learns the meaning of forgiveness and understanding in a seriocomic epic that takes him from New Jersey to Chicago to Cambridge, Mass.
Schwartz's first novel is solidly entrenched in the tradition of Jewish coming-of-age fiction. The book opens in 1969, when 12-year-old Seth Shapiro's mentally shaky mother Ruth, still furious that her wealthy medical-researcher husband left her for a French postdoctoral student, marries a loser she just met at a Catskills resort. The marriage, a quick flop, is one of numerous domestic disasters with which the perpetually alienated Seth and his intimately close twin sister Sarah must contend. They also share the unsettling experience of hearing a fat, married lawyer have sex with their mother during a visit to his Long Island summer home. When they visit their father at his Cape Cod home with their younger brother Seamus, he treats them only slightly less coldly than his uptight French wife, who brings out upstart Seth's knack for getting in trouble—or skirting it. As a student, he achieves early success with a story largely lifted from the work of Saul Bellow, and ends up for the wrong reasons at the University of Chicago Divinity School. As well-written and thoughtful as it is, the book never overcomes a certain secondhand quality itself. There's nothing especially fresh about Seth or his story, or Schwartz's treatment of fiction as a curative for real life. The comic touches are never more than amusing, and its serious themes never more than lightly affecting, or sentimental. Seth's sexual encounters—with an all-knowing teen who schools him in oral sex under the stars, a smart Jewish girl who turns out to be lesbian, an auburn-haired gentile who pursues him after seeing his standup act—are entertaining. But they seem based more in male fantasy than fictional reality.
An enjoyable but lightweight novel about a Jewish boy's awakening.