The comfortable but unmoored life of a Jewish graduate student “always looking for what was not there” is punctuated by encounters with three men, each challenging in a different way. Can any of them supply what's missing?
A gloomy, Victorian air hangs over Plante’s (Worlds Apart: A Memoir, 2015, etc.) new novel, which, while modern in setting, seems to exist in a timeless parallel universe. Its heroine is Nancy Green, the daughter of Jewish refugees from Germany who are now middle-class, secular New Yorkers whose indulgence of their only child has not prevented Nancy’s “dark moods” and longings. Although studying for a master's degree in English (with a focus, tellingly, on Henry James) at Boston University, Nancy seems adrift. She's drawn to complicated men, the first of whom, Aaron, is a Hasidic Jew in the process of converting to Catholicism in order to become a monk. The second is Yvon, a Catholic Franco-American from Rhode Island, a “lonely loner” in thrall to his needy, suicidal mother. After Nancy's impassioned but troubled relationship with Yvon ends, her next involvement is with a British lawyer, Tim—Jewish, chilly, and intermittently abusive—whom she marries. Living in London, Nancy tries to be a society wife (Plante offers a somewhat caricatured portrait of the upper-crust circle Tim strains to join, though as a Jew he will always feel like an outsider), but after three miscarriages and then Tim’s confession of infidelity, she finally acts for herself. Simultaneously realistic and abstract, Plante’s narrative is divided between his solemn, fastidious scene-setting and more abstract intellectual inquiries. Nancy’s downbeat, winding search for love, identity, and belonging is scarcely resolved but does conclude in a familiar place.
A questing new work from an accomplished writer—elegant, cerebral, not entirely convincing.