Not just love and tradition, but rules and expectations shape the relationships of two couples from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, in a British novelist’s engaging debut.
No touching, no television, no immodesty of dress or behavior. The strictures of the North London religious community Harris evokes in her Man Booker Prize longlisted first novel make an extreme contrast with the norms of secular life. In this contained world, in 2008, Chani Kaufman and Baruch Levy are getting married after a mere three dates. Opening with their wedding ceremony, the story loops back to the couple’s first encounter, the matchmaker’s involvement, the courtship, the parents’ reactions (his mother doesn’t approve) and the proposal. Shy but smart, virgins both, Chani and Baruch seem to be well-matched. But so were Chaim and Rebecca (now Rivka), the rabbi and his wife—parents of Baruch’s friend Avromi—who met in Jerusalem in 1982, fell in love in freer, more vibrant circumstances, yet now live lives shaped by piety and conservatism. Harris’ simple, sympathetic, sometimes-comic portrait of a tight-knit world gently illuminates its anxieties and tensions, and through Avromi’s secret relationship with a fellow college student she exposes the sacrifices and choices its members make out of loyalty and belief. As Rivka, who's responsible for preparing Chani for her new role as wife, reaches a crisis in her own life, Chani experiences the excitement of her wedding and the two women’s paths diverge, following their sharply distinct trajectories.
A readable, compassionate portrait of roles, especially women’s, in a Haredi community that only occasionally strays into stereotype.