A devastating fire causes a couple in crisis to look back over their long marriage in Golan’s (Where Things Are When You Lose Them, 2008, etc.) literary novel.
Rob and Amy Lerner are sitting in their favorite restaurant deciding to get divorced while, a few blocks away, their house burns to the ground. The fire destroys Amy’s painting studio and all of her art; Rob’s home office and all the material related to his import business; and every object, photograph, and heirloom that they owned. The couple is left staring at the rubble of their lives “like the body of a loved one under a sheet. The house was like that, a lost loved one.” The two met many years earlier in New York City, where Amy, then named Geller, was a promising—if unconfident—artist, and Rob worked as a Yeshiva teacher to avoid a military draft. At the time, Rob identified Amy with Lilith—the first wife of Adam who wouldn’t submit to his dominion, who’s sometimes interpreted as a demon and stealer of children: “To Rob Lerner [Lilith] was simply the woman you will never tire of, never look at without lust, who will never lose her mystery, the woman who will make you whole.” The couple’s relationship was always combustive, however, and even after they marry, find financial success, and raise a son, Marco, the couple is haunted by events from their pasts—Amy’s brother Mickey’s death and the traumas of Rob’s Holocaust-survivor father, Sol. The novel reviews their rocky relationship and asks where, exactly, it all went wrong. Also, how did the fire, which punctuated their dissolution, start? And what does Rob’s identification of Amy with Lilith—whom Sol claims to have seen in a Polish orchard during the war—say about the couple? Golan’s prose is exact and insightful and full of lines that encapsulate the particular deficiencies of the Lerners’ marriage: “They had grown over the years to dislike each other with a passion that would have been admirable, perhaps breathtakingly beautiful, had it been love.” He constructs the characters of Rob and Amy in a deliberate manner and with great attention to detail. With incredible specificity, the author manages to present an affecting and recognizable portrait of coupledom, and as the storylines grow, their thorny lives become more deeply intertwined. Amy, in particular, is a fully imagined being—knowable when the reader takes her side and completely mysterious when the reader aligns with Rob. The Judaica in the story’s background lends it a slightly mystical mood, and it infuses the proceedings with a grim sense of inevitability. The book does drag in some places, and the reader may be forgiven for wanting to get back to the present-day plotline before realizing that the past is the main story. That said, Golan’s skillful and compelling character work is enough to keep the readers wondering, as Rob and Amy do, about the impossibility of happiness and the meaning of love.
A cleareyed and adeptly composed investigation of a marriage.