A middle-aged woman returns to Poland with her concentration-camp survivor father but gets mired down in her own neuroses.
Ruth Rothwax, raised in Australia by Polish parents who barely survived the Holocaust, runs her own New York company, where she writes letters for all occasions for a group of mostly wealthy clients. Thinking it would be good for both her and her widowed father, Edek, she books them for a lengthy trip to Poland to visit his childhood home and the camp where he was imprisoned during the war. Practically from the moment she arrives in Poland, however, Ruth is unable to contain her anger. Everywhere she looks she sees the evidence of the virulent Polish anti-Semitism that nearly exterminated all of that country’s Jews. While she fumes, Edek happily talks Polish with the doormen and cabdrivers who serve as just about their only human contact throughout the trip. A good portion of the story is composed of squabbling conversations between Edek and Ruth, which the author makes equally comedic and meaningful. The character of Edek is especially well-rendered, his endearingly stubborn but good-natured manner a much-needed panacea for Ruth’s irritating obsessiveness (she keeps all her closet hangers turned the same way and allows herself to read exactly 12 minutes of People each day). While Brett lets Edek’s actions and words speak for his character, she uses warmed-over psychobabble to clue us in to Ruth’s motivations. (Edek would have made a much more welcome narrator.) A subplot in which Ruth speaks with the ghost of a concentration-camp officer seems a contrived ploy to introduce some interesting background context to the trip.
While Australian author Brett's first novel here (stories: What God Wants, 1993) has a historical depth that most tales of father/daughter relationships lack, her inability to weave all its messy elements together keeps it from being much more than a well-researched oddity.