A tender, rueful first novel by the author of Useful Gifts (stories: 1989 Flannery O’Connor winner).
When she finds out she’s pregnant in the fall of 1953, 45-year-old Chenia Arnow is so despairing that she walks into the ocean off Coney Island. But the thought of leaving her two school-age children at the mercy of their selfish, irritable father drives her back onto the beach, where she’s briefly comforted by a handsome stranger. He proves, after Chenia gives birth to Devorah and they meet again, to be Harry Taubman, manager of a shoe store and everything husband Ruben is not: attentive, well educated and, when their intense conversations evolve into an affair, a sensitive, skillful lover. It takes Chenia years to learn that Ruben is also cheating (with two women) and one devastating minute to discover Harry is married. After a second suicide attempt, Chenia seems frail and defeated to four-year-old Devorah, but she will wrest joy from life again. Visits to the Cloisters provided a lifeline to this uneducated woman after the disorienting move from Brighton Beach to Washington Heights; now, with Devorah attending a Manhattan private school, Chenia immerses herself in the Metropolitan Museum. Art opens wider the intellectual vistas she first glimpsed talking with Harry, and some nicely crafted plot turns propel her into a happy marriage with a wealthy businessman. Devorah tells Chenia’s story, and although it takes a while to get used to a narration describing events that occurred before she was born or out of her sight, we come to understand that this novel is a daughter’s tribute to her mother, reconstructed and partly imagined from clues and hints dropped over a lifetime. Each character is a full-bodied individual, but towering over them all is Chenia, with her Yiddish accent and Old World superstitions, her ferocious intelligence and biting humor, the deep-rooted sorrow her children can assuage but not heal. She’s the Jewish mother Philip Roth never understood well enough to depict; Glickfeld gives Chenia her due and makes a vital addition to Jewish-American literature.
Luminous with clear-sighted compassion for its imperfect characters, alive to life’s bitter disappointments and transcendent possibilities: very exciting fiction indeed.