A sprawling novel about family, faith and fortune that offers a fresh look at the lives of American Jews in the middle of the last century.
Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, famously said that while happy families are all alike, unhappy families are unhappy in their own ways. It’s hard to call the Forshtayns at the center of Maslin’s (…And Turn It Again, 2008, etc.) ambitious new effort unhappy, but they certainly are unique. In 1904, members of that family are forced to flee Vilnius, Lithuania, in the midst of deadly pogroms, moving to the United States to start life afresh. The book then follows multiple generations as a momentous new American century dawns. This decades-spanning novel reads a bit like family sagas such as Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1901) or John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga (1922), as it traces one clan’s changing fortunes over the course of many years, including those of the titular Sol. Yet the narrative eventually settles on the story of Sol’s favored nephew, Justin—later called Jacob—and tracks his academic and romantic maturation from New England to Illinois and back again. The story follows his progress through Harvard and the University of Chicago and his deepening love for a French-Canadian woman named Marie. Like Chaim Potok and Philip Roth before him, Maslin—himself a rabbi—focuses on the lives of 20th-century American Jews. But Maslin’s approach shares more with Potok’s than Roth’s; his style is true and earnest, and although he lacks Roth’s trademark sardonic wit, he has Potok’s eye for domestic detail. His book is fueled by human relationships, and there’s an intimacy and tenderness in his treatment of his characters that keeps his sweeping narrative from abandoning its concern with its heroes’ humanity. Furthermore, the novel is not only culturally, but religiously Jewish, as Maslin’s rabbinic training allows him to explore not only Judaism’s traditions, but also its scriptures and sacred spaces. His engagement with Judaism’s spiritual pith—and with the temptations that may draw one away from it—serves as the book’s sturdy backbone.
A dense exploration of the familial ties that bind one Jewish family.