IF I TOLD YOU ONCE by Judy Budnitz


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An original retelling of one of fiction’s oldest stories: what it’s like to be a mother and/or a daughter in an ever-changing world. Born in an unnamed pogrom in what is probably Eastern Europe, 16-year-old Elena leaves her beloved mother and seven siblings to embark on a new life in America. As Budnitz’s debut novel opens, Elena is telling her life story to a young woman who turns out to be her granddaughter—and what a story she tells. Full of superstition, magic spells, and folk legend (this is the land of The Evil Eye, after all), Elena’s take on life is both familiar (anyone with a foreign-born grandparent will nod her head in recognition) and extraordinary. Simple of language, she is nonetheless complex in her understanding: “They loved each other very much, my parents,” she writes. “But love was different then. People didn—t talk about it, didn—t even think of the word, but it was there in every mouthful of food they shared. It was a simple thing, certain, it needed no discussion. Certain as blowing out a candle. Do you need to discuss whether the room will be dark?— Her daughter, Sashie (soon to be Americanized to Shirley), then weighs in with her story, which includes no small measure of combined love and hate for her foreign-born mother, who engineers Sashie’s marriage through Old World magic—and lives to regret it. When Mara, Elena’s granddaughter, gives birth—to a son!—the three generations of strong, feisty women are forced to face their connection and to resolve age-old conflicts. Budnitz (stories: Flying Leap, 1998) is at her best when she has Elena speak; for all their feistiness, Sashie and Mara never quite emerge from under the shadow of their amazing matriarch. Still, Budnitz’s debut is a kind of Jewish Rashomon, delivered with humor and heart. You shouldn—t have to be told twice to read it.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-20285-7
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Picador
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1999


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