THE ROWING LESSON by Anne Landsman


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From Landsman (The Devil’s Chimney, 1997), the story of a woman who channels her dying father’s memories of his youth in South Africa.

It is the last chapter in Dr. Harold Klein’s storied life, and as he lies unconscious in an Intensive Care Unit, his family gathers around him, including his wife, son Simon and, most significantly, his pregnant daughter Betsy, who has come all the way from New York to say goodbye. In some of the more coherent chapters, Betsy remembers her own interactions with her father, recalling his dismay at her cabinet full of homeopathic remedies on a tense visit to New York, or his tenuous relationship with her partner, William. But, for the most part, Betsy narrates not her own life but her father’s, speaking in the second person and inhabiting his emotional memory so deeply that it is impossible to trust her role as the narrator. She begins with a moment from his teenage years in small-town George, South Africa, when Harry, the painfully skinny son of the town’s beloved Russian Jewish shopkeeper, explores a cut on the thigh of a local girl and simultaneously discovers the worlds of medicine and of women. Betsy follows Harry’s adolescence, as well as his sassy sister Maisie and spoiled younger brother Bertie, through his departure to medical school in Cape Town at the dawning of World War II. Sharing a room in the big city with other small-town boys, Harry debates enlisting in the army, studies anatomy, pines after his classmate Dorothy and woos a freckled girl named Stella. Some of the details are captivating, particularly those relating to religion, race and politics. Harry’s father’s burial in the first grave in the first Jewish cemetery in the African countryside, for example, is particularly redolent. But many of the memories concern Harry’s sexual awakening. Awkwardly presented from Betsy’s perspective, these sections are not nearly as engaging as they could be.

Bizarre and inconsistent.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2007
ISBN: 978-1-56947-469-3
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Soho
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2007