A trio of young Jews is caught in a web of desire in the years following World War II.
Sol Kerem, a rabbinical student in New York, is engaged to be married to the beautiful Rosalie when a mysterious German Jew named Walter Westhaus suddenly appears in his classes. After witnessing his own fiancee and his father shot down by Nazi soldiers, Walter escaped to an ashram in India, where he spent the remaining war years. Now in his mid-20s, Walter has been brought to New York by an academic who believes in his intellectual promise. Walter and Sol become study partners, and soon, Walter and Rosalie become partners in much more than study. Their affair spans decades. As Rosalie builds both a congregation and a family with Sol in New York, she continues to carry on with Walter, who has moved out to Berkeley. Gottlieb’s debut novel is an ambitious study of faith, doubt, and desire both erotic and spiritual. Unfortunately, the novel begins at an emotional pitch so high it can’t be sustained. Walter and Rosalie’s passion for each other begins to feel tiresome. Sol, who endures a spiritual crisis as well as this cuckolding, is a flat and pathetic character, mostly unrealized. For a book that takes intense emotion as its subject, it is peculiarly unfeeling. After all, what about Sol? The only thought that Walter and Rosalie give him is a sideways one: their affair, Rosalie thinks, is “possible and beautiful and wrong all at the same time.” That affair is described in purple, overheated prose that fails to comprehend the nuance of its own subject. The end result feels, peculiarly, both overblown and underarticulated.
A debut novel about faith and desire falls short of its ambitious goals.