April 27, 2006
Three Madelehs of the Written Word
Jewish women have prominent roles in several new novels this season, penned by young Jewish writers with impressive track records -- Ayelet Waldman, Allegra Goodman and Lara Vapnyar. The three have written urban stories, focused on relationships, and the books are closely observed slices of life.
The Jewish background and sensibility of these writers comes across on the page, although with varying degrees of transparency. Both Waldman and Vapnyar were born abroad: Vapnyar grew up in the former Soviet Union and came here as a young woman, while Waldman was born in Israel, came here as a child and grew up in New Jersey, although she lived in Israel again in high school and college and returns there often. Goodman may be the only well-known Jewish writer to hail from Hawaii.
"Love and Other Possible Pursuits" by Ayelet Waldman (Doubleday), who will be appearing at the L.A. Times Festival of Books this weekend, is a novel of marriage and motherhood that is also a love story and a New York story. Emilia Greenleaf, the narrator, is a Harvard Law School graduate who meets her soul mate, Jack, at her first job. He is a Syrian Jew, a partner in the firm and he's married with a young son. He leaves his wife for Emilia, and they live in elegant comfort, but all is not happily-ever-after.
They lose a newborn daughter -- the reader learns this early on, as the novel skips back and forth in time -- and Emilia struggles with her new stepson, William, a precocious preschooler. She finds the boy to be insufferable, even as she tells herself that as an adult she should be able to love this innocent 5-year-old who corrects her pronunciation and rebuffs with a smirk her attempts to please him. Emilia also has to deal with the child's overprotective mother and the mother's friends who watch her every step, even as she picks him up from his high-achievers' nursery school. But in small ways, Emilia and William find their way toward bonding.
The novel is funny and a quick read, and although it might look like chick-lit, Waldman goes deeper, conveying emotional complexity. Even though Emilia has the profile of the kind of woman others sometimes can't abide, she is likeable in her imperfections and growing self-awareness.
The author, who also graduated from Harvard Law School, keenly portrays the life of well-to-do professionals who strive for the best for their children, unable to see the downside of their single-minded pursuits.
A resident of Berkeley, where she lives with her husband Michael Chabon and their four children, she captures New York in its splendid beauty, particularly the charms of Central Park in all seasons. Waldman, author of "Daughter's Keeper" and the Mommy Track mystery series, takes on in this novel many of the themes of romance, relationships and parenting that she writes about in her essays on Salon.com and in The New York Times, Child Magazine, and the San Francisco Chronicle.
For years, Allegra Goodman was the poster child for the youngest generation of Jewish writers. She published her first story in Commentary during her freshman year at Harvard and her first book of stories on the day she graduated in 1989, and she has had a string of successes since then. She's been applauded for her luminous style and originality, her humor, and her embrace of Judaism in her fiction. Now 38, she's no longer the child at the literary table and has just published her most ambitious book to date, "Intuition" (The Dial Press).
Named by the New Yorker as one of the 20 best writers under 40, Goodman is the author of two collections of stories and two novels, "Paradise Park" and "Kaaterskill Falls," a National Book Award finalist. She has also won a Whiting Writers Award, National Jewish Book Award and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture's Jewish Cultural Achievement Award.
Goodman was born in Brooklyn, lived briefly in Los Angeles as a toddler and grew up in Hawaii, where she sets many stories and her novel "Paradise Park." Her parents, who taught at the University of Hawaii, lived there for 25 years and, although the Jewish community was limited, they consciously chose a Jewish lifestyle -- they attended synagogue and imported kosher meat from California. As a child, Goodman often would visit Los Angeles, where her father grew up and her grandfather still lives. "Intuition" is, in fact, dedicated to her grandparents, Calvin and Florence Goodman (her grandmother died recently).
While her previous novels involved Jewish communities, "Intuition" is about a professional community, although several characters are Jewish. Compellingly told from several points of view, the novel is set at a prestigious research institute in Cambridge, Mass., where a team of scientists does sophisticated cancer investigations. Goodman shows readers the inside workings of a lab, from how projects are assigned to how mice are sac'ed -- or sacrificed -- to how scientists compete for funds. The cast of the novel is something of an ensemble, functioning in certain ways as a family, with relationships based on power, love, ambition and shared interests.
The novel has elements of mystery, as one postdoc raises questions about whether a colleague, her former boyfriend, may be falsifying his data. She acts based on intuition, which, in the lab, as Goodman writes, "was a restricted substance. Like imagination and emotion, intuition misled researchers, leading to willful interpretations."
In a telephone interview from her home in Cambridge, Goodman explains that although the subject of this novel may be different, she remains interested in themes of "ritual, hierarchy, closed communities, questions of doubt and belief, who you believe in, what you put your faith in."
This book is less comic than her others, but the distinctive Goodman voice -- attentive to all details, wise, inventive, strong on characters' inner and outer lives -- is recognizable.
"I've been surrounded by scientists all my life," she says, referring to her mother, sister, brother-in-law and husband.
She also spent time observing in an actual lab to understand its rhythms and mindset. As a writer who works in solitude, she is envious of the close collaborative nature of scientific work and sought to explore that. As a writer, she seeks truth, as scientists do -- but she recognizes that she gets to make things up.
Goodman never shies away from writing about religious themes or religious people and sees this as "a very Jewish book. My subject in all my books is the American Jewish community, which is huge."
In the book, both lab directors, Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn, are Jewish. While Glass (who shortened his name from Glazeroff "not just to forget that his grandparents were Eastern European Jews, but for aesthetic reasons. He could not countenance living and working in such a Russian bear-coat of a last name, and so he'd distilled Glazeroff to its purer form") is intermarried and assimilated, Mendelssohn is neither, but Glass tries to use his Judaism when questions are raised about lab results. For several characters, their religion is science.
In conversation, Goodman, the mother of four children who range in age from 3 to 13, is upbeat -- with a personality that matches her writing. She seems easygoing, likes to laugh and is drawn to the philosophical side of things. She has a doctorate in English and as a reader, she favors writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and George Eliot, as well as Katherine Anne Porter and Eudora Welty. Among the contemporary writers she cites are Marilynne Robinson and Kazuro Ishiguro.
She's not a confessional sort of writer; her novels aren't memoiristic: She's more interested in writing about other people. About her own writing, she thinks she's getting better, having matured as a craftsman: "I've grown more patient, more willing to spend time to get things right. That comes with age."
Lara Vapnyar, a Russian American Jewish writer, is at the forefront of a new generation of immigrant Jewish writers. Like Goodman, she has published stories in The New Yorker. Her first book, "There Are Jews in My House" a collection of short stores set in the former Soviet Union and in New York, won awards and much praise.
In her first novel, "Memoirs of a Muse" (Pantheon), Vapnyar again turns to the world of immigrants. With the understated humor characteristic of her stories, she portrays a young immigrant woman named Tanya who as a child in the Soviet Union developed an obsession with Dostoevsky and the woman who was his muse. In New York, she is determined to become the muse of a great American writer. When she meets a novelist at an Upper West Side reading, she becomes his live-in girlfriend, earnestly trying to help him. But she finds that while he goes to book parties and the gym and visits his analyst, he does little writing. As she learns English, she comes to understand all sides of her new world, and she learns about genuine artistic inspiration.
Published in 2003, "There Are Jews in My House," received the National Foundation for Jewish Culture's Prize for Jewish Fiction by Emerging Writers. The novel, like her stories, touches on issues of alienation, identity, contrasts between East and West.
From her well-tuned prose, it's hard to believe that English is not her first language. Vapnyar went through the Moscow school system and earned a master's degree in Russian language and literature before moving to New York, where she largely taught herself English through reading.
Ayelet Waldman will be a panelist on the "Fiction: Reinventing the Family" event at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 29.