"Love With Noodles" by Harry I. Freund (Carroll & Graff, $25).
Consider the curious case of Dan Gelder: 60 years old, Jewish, paunchy, bad back. Yet it seems every bejeweled Park Avenue matron is after the investment counselor for love, for money or maybe for just a quick roll in the hay.
That's the cute and quirky premise of "Love With Noodles," the debut novel by 65-year-old Park Avenue investment counselor Harry I. Freund. The novel's subtitle is, "An Amorous Widower's Tale," and just how true to life it is, we may never know. But whether or not art imitated life is irrelevant, especially when the ride is as much fun as "Love With Noodles."
What Freund sorely lacks in literary style, he more than makes up with heart and humor.
Narrated in the first person, present tense (always risky), "Love With Noodles" follows Gelder's canoodling with a string of women who enter his life just as he emerges from mourning his late beshert, Ellen. Gelder lives alone. His grown son, Eric, faces financial ruin. What's worse, Eric is planning to marry a non-Jew.
Though all Jewish, Gelder's women vary widely -- from Charlotte, the wife of a friend off on a gay fling, to Maya, a Palestinian rights activist with a knack for lovemaking so vigorous it puts her partners in traction.
He nearly finds beshert No. 2 in Violet, a stinking-rich widow who loves adventure, diamonds and sticking it to those she detests. Gelder nearly steals her heart, and the two are off to Israel to visit Violet's Orthodox daughter.
But soon, Gelder meets Tatiana, a 43-year-old Ukrainian widow with a 9-year-old piano prodigy son. She is gorgeous, lonely and seemingly angelic. Gelder falls for her hard. But does she love him for who he is or for his bank account?
The last third of the novel chronicles Gelder's efforts to weed out all the meaningless sexual encounters and settle on choosing between the women that matter: Violet and Tatania. How about both?
Freund has trouble setting the tone of his story. Is it farce? Comedy of manners? Social satire? He isn't sure, and that trips up his writing.
Moreover, though the book is filled with sex scenes, Gelder/Freund approaches them so gingerly, so squeamishly, they end up less than erotic. One almost feels embarrassed for the author, who doesn't seem to want to shine a light into the bedroom.
As with many first-person narratives, the main character/narrator is often the most poorly drawn. That is the central problem with "Love With Noodles," as Gelder ends up frustratingly two-dimensional. A novelist is required to reveal characters, not cover for them.
However, the women are delightful, especially Violet. She has all the color and brashness of a Tennessee Williams heroine. If they ever make a movie adaptation of this book, the Shirley McClaines and Meryl Streeps of the world will be fighting for the part.
There's plenty of Jewish content here, from the pair of Orthodox Jewish weddings, to Gelder's anguish over his son's intermarriage, to the sojourn across Israel.
Like all good fiction, "Love With Noodles" expands its borders beyond the parochial. Anyone past the halfway point of life, hurtling forward with unease, will see something of himself in Gelder, paunch or no paunch.
Freund has a long way to go if he wants to join the ranks of great American novelists. But if there was a Pulitzer Prize for understanding the subtleties of life, Freund would have his on the mantel by now.