Veteran author and translator Nathan (Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, 2008, etc.) returns with a historical novel that artfully fuses the immigrant experience of 1910s New York with dark romance and political intrigue.
By most measures, Abraham Cahan is a successful man—he’s the author of seminal works of Jewish immigrant fiction, a leftist political activist, a pillar of the community and an esteemed newspaper editor of the Yiddish-Socialist Forward, for which he writes an indispensable advice column. But a loveless, sterile marriage has left an emotional void in Cahan’s life, one exacerbated by his estrangement from the religious practices of his youth. So when a troubled woman writes the newspaper with a letter claiming familial sexual abuse, accompanied by a titillating photograph, Cahan ingratiates himself into her life with less than the purest motives. Though he vaguely suspects the situation is more than what it seems, he quickly finds himself drawn into a tangled plot with strands that seemingly lead to his professional competitors as well as the far more powerful interests of the Tammany Hall political machine. Before he knows it, Cahan’s reputation and fortunes teeter on the brink of ruin. Nathan’s rich, beautifully descriptive prose advances the story at a relaxed pace while realizing the crowded, variegated world of the Lower East Side in all its overstuffed essence. Nathan expertly characterizes Cahan, a historical figure, as a man tugged in many directions by competing forces: between Jewish shtetl culture and assimilationist modernity, between gradual socialist change and the forceful demands of revolutionaries, and between the need to maintain propriety and the desires of his heart. Although the writing is somewhat halting and stuffy in the early going, Nathan finds his stride just as the passions of his protagonist awaken and bloom.
A well-rendered, appealing period piece.