A literature professor searches for her roots after her father's death, uncovering an intricate portrait of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family.
Miller (English/Graduate Center, CUNY; But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives, 2002, etc.) was so distanced from her father's side of the family that, when she divorced, she adopted her mother's maiden name, rather than returning to Kipnis, her original surname. Though her parents were married and her father was always a consistent figure in her life, the author grew up close with her maternal relatives and almost entirely estranged from the Kipnis clan. Of particular curiosity were the uncle and first cousin that she'd never met. After her father died, Miller discovered a stash of old photographs and letters that piqued her curiosity: Who were the Kipnises, and why were they not a part of her life? To find out, she began deciphering clues, translating letters, tracking down army records, identifying long-dead figures in old photographs, connecting in person with her aging cousin and his family and eventually traveling back to Eastern Europe. What emerges is a story that will seem familiar to many Jewish families scattered across the diaspora: two sons carrying the pressures of their immigrant parents and responding differently to their freedom and opportunities. As with most, there are several skeletons in the Kipnis closet—suicide, divorce in a time when it was rare, womanizing and even some potential ties to the mob. But more than any particular scandal, Miller was shocked by the degree to which she became entrenched in her family's story, with each answered question not satiating but rather fueling her curiosity. Ever the professor, Miller turns to fiction to understand her own narrative, channeling E.L. Doctorow, Marilynne Robinson, Aleksandar Hemon and many others to help articulate her past.
Painstakingly detailed at times, this quiet memoir is saved by Miller's deftly placed literary references, which offer an unusual, intellectual perspective on an often-told story.