Rabbi Kushner’s first novel for adults echoes The Gift of Asher Lev and The Da Vinci Code, but offers neither the former’s gravitas nor the latter’s intrigue.
Kalman Stern is a middle-aged, divorced scholar of Jewish mysticism. One of his most treasured possessions is an old book that a stranger in Safed, Israel, gave him. He finds in it a page glued inside the crumbling back cover, which appears to be both a kabalistic meditation and a love letter. Stern begins a search for the person who wrote the letter, and to find out what the letter means. He’s also on a personal quest. After years of lonely bachelorhood, he’s pursuing an astronomer who shares his interest in cosmology. The author interweaves Stern’s story with that of the letter-writer, a mystic in medieval Castile. Also strewn throughout are quasi–magical-realist asides in which Stern returns again and again to Safed. In each scene, the stranger who gave him the book (think Clarence, the ditzy angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) offers Stern new insight into the meaning of life and the shape of the universe, e.g., “The event horizon is not somewhere out there; it is homogenously distributed throughout all creation.” Kushner can be awfully didactic, as when he lets Stern lecture his date—and the reader—about “mystical monism” (the idea that “God is simply all there is”). Kushner also regularly interrupts the story’s flow with passages like, “Kabbalistic thought reached its zenith a century later with the appearance of what is now known as the Zohar.” Still, the hero’s likable quirkiness will hold many readers till the end.
A mysterious medieval epistle, bumbling romantic efforts and plenty of feel-good spirituality combine to offer good prospects for decent commercial, if not literary, success.