After decades spent suppressing sad and angry feelings toward her mother for adultery and the destruction of her childhood happiness, it’s time for anguished Barbara Blumfield to make peace with her parent and herself.
The pendulum swings, slowly, from toxic rage and instability to all-embracing forgiveness in Brafman’s debut, a three-generational mother-to-daughter family portrait that almost loses itself in a vortex of introspection. Although now in her 50s, with a husband, successful teaching job, and daughter of her own, Barbara has never been able to confront or forgive her mother, June Pupnick, for her affair with the “Shabbos goy” in their Orthodox Jewish community in Milwaukee. “My mother torched my home, my shul,” Barbara mourns, full of emotional discomfort, guilt for keeping her mother’s secrets, and skepticism that she can be a good-enough parent to her own daughter, Lili. Brafman’s sober, earnest novel mines this sensitive territory obsessively, focusing on Barbara’s yearnings and undigested feelings to the exclusion of almost everything else. Crosscutting between the 1970s and 2009, the narrative juxtaposes the crises of the past—June's transgressions, a child care episode in California that ended badly, a breakdown—with the problems of today, which mainly involve Lili. Barbara’s coping mechanisms start to fail in the face of the reappearances of the compassionate rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife) of her childhood and also of her mother, newly restored to town by Barbara’s brother after her diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. And there’s more, with Brafman ratcheting up the pressure until a very late shift in perspective that, enhanced by an intervention from Lili, allows ill feelings to be swept away in a tide of comprehension and compassion.
Sincere but long-winded, Brafman’s story cycles through a limited range of emotional chords, to numbing effect.