It’s 1941, and the Jews of Europe are disappearing to the East or fleeing on ships that can find no safe harbor. This sophisticated first novel considers the response by Americans Jews to the ever more insistent evidence of racial conflagration across the Atlantic.
An inevitable cloud of despair hangs over this timely, psychologically questing debut, since the reader, like many of the book’s characters, already knows things will not end well. Brooks uses a handful of figures to express various responses of American Jews to the terrible news filtering out of Europe and the national reluctance to intervene. In Manhattan, firebrand Shmuel Spiro wants to raise a Jewish army to fight the Nazis; in upstate Utica, otherworldly rabbi Max Hoffman understands the hypocrisy behind America's refugee visa quotas and how high the bureaucratic bar is set; and Utica junkyard owner Abe Auer, a first-generation immigrant himself, remains haunted by his role in his Russian family’s history. While opposing factions argue and disagree at conferences about how to rescue Hitler’s victims, many middle-class Jews like Abe’s wife and daughter find their comfortable lifestyles largely undisrupted. Then a refugee arrives, an atypical one—glamorous, unsettling Yiddish actress Ana Beidler. Mature in tone and unhurried in pace, Brooks’ novel is at its best in its portraits of unhappy men confronted by cataclysmic events in the world and unexpressed longings at home. Its dramatic fulcrum, however, is the book’s weakness. Ana, blessed with irresistible allure and a burned-out attitude, is a more familiar character—the disruptive seductress—than the troubled men in Utica and New York. Her actions may be central to the novel’s development, yet it’s a more compelling and original book in the scenes without her.
Brooks offers an imperfect but insightful depiction of the choices individuals make in unbearable times.