Jewish rituals—some timeless, some contemporary—give thematic shape and emotional texture to this debut collection.
A bris, a bat mitzvah and a funeral. A high-school trip to Auschwitz and a stint as a Hillel peer counselor. These are just a few of the rites of passage that Albert’s characters must negotiate. Religion brings people together in her tales, but it also exposes and exacerbates the fissures that separate parents and children, husbands and wives, or best friends. The title story is representative of the author’s sharp insight and dark sense of humor. A woman helps her parents rid their house of leavening in preparation for Passover while constantly—and miserably—conscious of a raging yeast infection. Not only does this affliction make her a walking, talking source of contamination, but the itch and burn physically echo the psychic discomfort she feels in the presence of her extended family. Albert is a spectacularly efficient writer, able to reveal more about her characters in a few well-chosen, beautifully phrased sentences than some authors can manage in an entire novel. She seems to always know the precise detail that turns a character on a page into a real person, and she keeps her narratives moving at a lively pace. Each story is well-made, and the book as a whole has a pleasingly coherent structure. Just as religious observance lends shape and meaning to life’s most important moments, Jewish ritual gives these stories their focus and form. Albert captures her characters at liminal moments, and little windows of sacred time open onto scenes of worldly but soul-deep disarray. This collection will no doubt have special resonance for Jewish readers, but its appeal doesn’t stop there. The author’s command of her craft should impress anyone who appreciates short fiction, and her characters are so singularly human that their power to charm and engage transcends religious affiliation.
An exciting debut: sincerely touching, mordantly funny and superbly assured.