The Family Markowitz

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Overview

"The Family Markowitz is one of the most astute and engaging books about American family life to have come our way in quite a while." —Linda Matchan, Boston Globe

In The Family Markowitz, Allegra Goodman writes with wit and compassion of three generations of Markowitzes making their way in America. At the center is Rose, the cantankerous matriarch, who longs for her earlier life in London and Vienna but is now forced into dependency on her sons Ed, an academic expert on ...

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Overview

"The Family Markowitz is one of the most astute and engaging books about American family life to have come our way in quite a while." —Linda Matchan, Boston Globe

In The Family Markowitz, Allegra Goodman writes with wit and compassion of three generations of Markowitzes making their way in America. At the center is Rose, the cantankerous matriarch, who longs for her earlier life in London and Vienna but is now forced into dependency on her sons Ed, an academic expert on terrorism (ahead of his time!), and Henry, an artistic expatriate with a taste for antiques and postmodern poetry. Also in the family circle are Sarah, Ed's wife, who teaches creative writing and longs for a more literary life, and Sarah and Ed's daughter Miriam, a medical student who causes great alarm in her largely assimilated family by rediscovering Judaism.

Through her sharp-eyed observations of weddings, hospital vigils, holiday dinners, and other rituals of family life, Goodman writes about the Markowitzes from the inside, bringing each character to life.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Goodman's voice is fresh and distinctive as she limns a wry, funny, touching portrait of an American Jewish family in a brilliantly observed, lovingly rendered novel composed of interlocking stories. Rose Markowitz, stubborn, outspoken, kvetching, a survivor and an individualist whose youth was spent in Vienna and London during WWII, is 73, living with her second husband in Manhattan, when we first meet her. He dies, and for most of the book, Rose, now in her 80s, copes with lonely widowhood in Venice, Calif., where her bachelor son, Henry, an art gallery manager, lures her to live. But soon he splits for Oxford, England, to become an Anglophile scholar and aesthete. Rose's other son, Ed, a Georgetown University historian of the Middle East and media pundit on terrorism, is, in Henry's eyes, a rank apologist for the PLO. Sarah, Ed's novelist/poet wife, is a frustrated fame-seeker, distracted from her writing by having to raise four children. Their daughter Miriam, a Harvard Med student, surprises her secular, liberal parents by embracing Orthodox ritual observance. Goodman (Total Immersion), who has published sections of this work in the New Yorker and Commentary, combines delicious comic set pieces with deeper meditations and conversations on Jewish identity, God, frazzled relationships and the breakdown of family life. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Goodman's chronicles of Jewish life (Total Immersion, LJ 5/15/89) continue with three generations of the Markowitz family explored in ten delightful stories. Rose, the matriarch, loses second husband Maury in "Fanny Mae." She subsequently appears as a lonely disgruntled figure along with her son Ed, a fuzzy academic; Henry, his younger brother, an effete sometime art dealer; Ed's wife Sarah, a homemaker who missed out on literary life; and their daughter, Miriam, a religious medical student. In "Oral History," which also appeared in Total Immersion, Alma, a wealthy WASP graduate student at Berkeley, is interviewing Rose, a Holocaust survivor. Rose has since left New York to live near her son Henry in Venice, California. Rose thinks Alma is messy, "unpressed." Alma thinks Rose is befuddled and tries to organize her thoughts using historical jargon. The dialog is delightful. Goodman has mastered the art of melding pathos with humor in the best style of Jewish story telling.Molly Abramowitz, Silver Spring, Md.
Salon
Allegra Goodman writes circles around most other young writers by not writing circles around them. Her unfussy, matter-of-fact style borrows from Grace Paley and Philip Roth, but in The Family Markowitz, her new collection of linked short stories, Goodman sounds like nobody else. You move through these smart and slyly funny stories -- about a cerebral and squabbling extended Jewish family -- with an increasing appreciation of her deep-seated talent. It's bad form to quote blurbs from book-flaps, but Cynthia Ozick gets it exactly right about Goodman: "All the muse-fairies were present at her birth."

Goodman has a gift that's inherent in many comic writers -- the ability to pull together an intimate but far-flung group of people (in this case, a family of failed intellectuals, cranky matriarchs and religiously obsessive children) and stand back while they annoy the hell out of each other. What's refreshing about Goodman, however, is that she doesn't settle for easy riffs and cheap ironies. While there is plenty of nicely grouchy humor here (one character complains that his brother has spent endless years in therapy only to develop "the most complicated persona possible -- the expatriate Brooklyn Jew in Oxford"), Goodman's prose has a steady, silent reserve that always indicates she has bigger things on her mind.

Most of the tension in The Family Markowitz is supplied by Goodman's interest in the clash between orthodoxy (religious, academic, you name it) and modern liberalizing impulses. Thus, two brothers maintain a running, and often hilarious, dialogue on modern scholarship. One brother rejects the other's political and sexual analyses of books because, "For Henry, reading had always been a gentle thing, a thing as delicate as blowing eggs. Two pinpricks and the meaning came, whole, unbroken, into the bowl." And in a moving story called The Four Questions, about a ritual Passover dinner, a father wonders what he did to make his young daughter so conservative and angry.

Goodman's one previous book, a collection titled Total Immersion, appeared nearly eight years ago, in 1989. The Family Markowitz is a revelation, and more than worth the wait. -- Dwight Garner

Kirkus Reviews
With wit, panache, and genuine affection for her characters, Goodman (Total Immersion, 1989) offers a saga of an archetypal Jewish-American family.

Though ostensibly a novel, many of the "chapters" here were originally published in The New Yorker as short stories, giving the work the feel of a collection, a photo album offering both casual snapshots and formal portraits of the family's history. A lack of narrative cohesion is sometimes discernible, then, as each chapter takes up a different relative during the last 15 years or so of the family life. Still, the slight discrepancies and holes in the chronicle are only mildly disruptive, for Goodman creates a wonderful collection of genuine individuals. The book begins with 73-year-old Rose Markowitz at the deathbed of her beloved second husband Maury. Popping Percodans, suffering through a visit from Maury's estranged and overbearing Israeli daughter, Rose is doing all she can to retain dignity in the midst of difficulties, including her sons' bickering financial advice. The aging Rose makes several appearances later in the narrative, though the tangled lives of her two children, Henry and Ed, take center stage. The Anglophilic Henry, a second-rate art dealer in Venice Beach, transforms himself, becoming the manager of a Laura Ashley boutique in Oxford (while changing sexual preferences midstream). Meanwhile, Middle East scholar Ed wages small battles with life's encroaching difficulties: Rose's overdoses and illnesses, his daughter Miriam's new fanatical orthodoxy, and the small, persistent indignities and peculiarities of the scholarly life. These trials and tribulations are hardly as prosaic as they sound, for humor and compassion abound; Goodman draws the reader into the family circle with such deftness and speed that these self-aware, determined characters all begin to seem remarkably and enjoyably familiar.

A success for Goodman, offering a frank and funny depiction of the strains and intermittent but distinct joys of family relations.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374529390
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 8/28/2005
  • Pages: 280
  • Product dimensions: 5.45 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Allegra Goodman's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Allure, Commentary, and Slate. She is the recipient of a Whiting Award and the Salon magazine award for fiction. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

from Fannie Mae
"Esther," Rose calls through her neighbor's closed door, with its blistering paint and the new steel plate around the knob.
"Who is it?" Esther's muffled voice floats back.
"It's Rose."
"Who?"
"Rose Markowitz." The door opens, and they fall into each other's arms. "How are you dear?" Rose asks. "I thought I heard you last night on the stairs, but I couldn't leave him. Now the woman from the service is here. What business do you have taking a cab so late?"
"Come in, come in," Esther says. "My nephew met me."
"Who? Arthur?"
"Come in, Rose."
"No, I can't stay."
"Just for a minute. Let me get you some coffee. I've made it already."
"But I really can't stay," Rose says as she walks into Esther's apartment. "I was just going downstairs for the mail." They sit together at the kitchen table and sip coffee from Esther's china teacups. They have lived in the building for twelve years, and their apartments are mirror images of each other.
"I'm speaking Hebrew," Esther tells Rose. "And midaberet ivrit. "
"You took those Hadassah classes?" Rose asks.
"I went on ulpan," Esther says, as if to say she went on safari. Rose thinks that anyone in the room would notice the contrast between Esther, full of energy after six weeks in Miami, and herself, wan and exhausted from staying here in the city all winter with Maury ill and no one to help. Having to do things when she didn't have the strength. Esther is tall, and big in hip and shoulder, her brown hair puffy, although thinning a little in the middle. Rose, who has always been petite, has lost weight -although she is still not thin. Her hair is short, once black and now irongray. She no longer has time for herself or the beauty parlor. "And who do you think I met on the first day?" Esther asks. "Dr. Mednik's sister."
"He and I," says Rose, "are not on speaking terms."
"No, you are not," Esther agrees. "But it was strange to see the sister there. She looks nothing like him it only came out later."
Rose stares at the place where Esther's oven should be, except that the apartment is a mirror image.
"And then right after, just a couple of days later, I went to the kids' hotel, where Dougie had his bankers" convention, and I was sitting by the pool and there out of the blue came Beatrice Schwartz with him; he's had surgery? he speaks artificially, you know, with a voice box -but she's still walking around with her fingernails out to here painted white, and the white slacks with the pleats, the knife-edge pleats. They weren't even the only people I saw. I could go on and on. It was just, you know, one small world after another. But I was worried about you, Rose."
"Well," says Rose, "he's very ill."
"But he's in good spirits?"
"Happy as a lark."
"I hope I have such a happy disposition at his age," Esther says. Rose's husband, Maury, is eightythree, ten years older than Rose, fifteen years older than Esther.
"Now, on top of everything, today his daughter is coming."
"From Israel?"
"We haven't seen her in years, and now she decides to come. "
"I can talk to her in Hebrew," Esther says.
"And she's staying with us," Rose tells Esther. "Here in the apartment."
"For how long?"
"She wouldn't say." Rose lowers her voice to a whisper. "She has an open ticket, and I think that she is determined to stay until, God forbid, the end."
Esther shakes her head.
"What else could she mean by coming now? She has never ever come before."
Copyright© 1997 by Allegra Goodman
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Table of Contents

Fanni Mae............................................................3
The Art Biz.........................................................28
Oral History........................................................45
The Wedding of Henry Markowitz......................................72
Mosquitoes.........................................................100
Fantasy Rose.......................................................138
The Persians.......................................................160
The Four Questions.................................................183
Sarah..............................................................208
One Down...........................................................234
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First Chapter

Chapter One

Fannie Mae

                             Esther," Rose calls through her neighbor's closed door, with its blistering paint and the new steel plate around the knob.

    "Who is it?" Esther's muffled voice floats back.

    "It's Rose."

    "Who?"

    "Rose Markowitz." The door opens, and they fall into each other's arms. "How are you dear?" Rose asks. "I thought I heard you last night on the stairs, but I couldn't leave him. Now the woman from the service is here. What business do you have taking a cab so late?"

    "Come in, come in," Esther says. "My nephew met me."

    "Who? Arthur?"

    "Come in, Rose."

    "No, I can't stay."

    "Just for a minute. Let me get you some coffee. I've made it already."

    "But I really can't stay," Rose says as she walks into Esther's apartment. "I was just going downstairs for the mail." They sit together at the kitchen table and sip coffee from Esther's china teacups. They have lived in the building for twelve years, and their apartments are mirror images of each other.

    "I'm speaking Hebrew," Esther tells Rose. "Ani midaberet ivrit."

    "You took those Hadassah classes?" Rose asks.

    "I went on ulpan," Esther says, as if to say she went on safari. Rose thinks that anyone in the room would notice the contrast between Esther, full of energy after six weeks in Miami, and herself, wan and exhausted from staying here in the city all winter with Maury ill and no one to help. Having to do things when she didn't have the strength. Esther is tall, and big in hip and shoulder, her brown hair puffy, although thinning a little in the middle. Rose, who has always been petite, has lost weight--although she is still not thin. Her hair is short, once black and now iron gray. She no longer has time for herself or the beauty parlor. "And who do you think I met on the first day?" Esther asks. "Dr. Mednik's sister."

    "He and I," says Rose, "are not on speaking terms."

    "No, you are not," Esther agrees. "But it was strange to see the sister there. She looks nothing like him--it only came out later."

    Rose stares at the place where Esther's oven should be, except that the apartment is a mirror image.

    "And then right after, just a couple of days later, I went to the kids' hotel, where Dougie had his bankers' convention, and I was sitting by the pool and there out of the blue came Beatrice Schwartz with him; he's had surgery--he speaks artificially, you know, with a voice box--but she's still walking around with her fingernails out to here painted white, and the white slacks with the pleats, the knife-edge pleats. They weren't even the only people I saw. I could go on and on. It was just, you know, one small world after another. But I was worried about you, Rose."

    "Well," says Rose, "he's very ill."

    "But he's in good spirits?"

    "Happy as a lark."

    "I hope I have such a happy disposition at his age," Esther says. Rose's husband, Maury, is eighty-three, ten years older than Rose, fifteen years older than Esther.

    "Now, on top of everything, today his daughter is coming."

    "From Israel?"

    "We haven't seen her in years, and now she decides to come."

    "I can talk to her in Hebrew," Esther says.

    "And she's staying with us," Rose tells Esther. "Here in the apartment."

    "For how long?"

    "She wouldn't say." Rose lowers her voice to a whisper. "She has an open ticket, and I think that she is determined to stay until, God forbid, the end."

    Esther shakes her head.

    "What else could she mean by coming now? She has never ever come before."

*

In the lobby, Rose pries the mail out of her small aluminum mailbox, number 5. There are bills, there are statements from the insurance, and there's a calendar from the Girls' Orphanage in Jerusalem, full of halftone pictures of the girls' laughing faces, their great big eyes and curly hair, their uniforms. She leafs through the calendar as she climbs the stairs. Rose loves the Girls' Orphanage and gives a little to them every year. She had always wanted to have a little girl of her own, but she and her first husband, Ben, had two sons. She would not have traded Henry and Edward, never. But she always wanted a little girl. She would have dressed her up in the summer in crisp white dresses with smocking; in the winter she would have sewn dresses with velvet sashes. There would have been tea parties and doll clothes; she would have trimmed doll hats. She has two granddaughters, it is true, but they are far away, almost too old for dolls, almost wild. Her eyesight is no longer good enough to sew small pieces. The Girls' Orphanage teaches sewing and the arts; the girls, it says on the calendar, "are instructed strictly according to the precepts of the Torah." Rose's small gifts support the schools, the woodworking shop and sewing classes, the dowry fund for brides--"to help them build a Jewish home."

    When she walks into her own apartment she feels how stuffy it is; the air is so hot and close. On the sofa the woman from the service reads her magazines, and Maury is sleeping in his chair. His large-print library books are stacked at his feet, his plaid blanket spread over his knees as he dozes away. He is so sick he gets all the pills he wants. For Rose, Mednik won't prescribe a thing. She has come to him and begged for some relief from her pain. Nothing. The sun through the window warms Maury's upturned face, and he seems to be dreaming he is lounging on the deck of an ocean liner. How she would love to do that. To sail away with him out of Washington Heights over the slush and the ice and out onto the Hudson, and then across the Atlantic, far, far away. If he weren't ill. If they could leave the apartment. She bends over him and says, "Maury, I don't know what to do. Where are we going to put her? On the sofa in the study? Is that where she should sleep?"

    Rose doesn't even know Maury's daughter, Dorothy. She's only met her once. Maury and his first wife divorced in 1950, when Dorothy was a child, and all she knows is that Dorothy lived here and she lived there and then ran away to Palestine. She simply grew up in greenhouses, raising tomatoes. She just grew and grew until she became a great lump of a woman, big and heavy, with thick, cropped black hair and down on her lip. Rose dreads having her in the house. He has been sick before and she's never come, hut now Dorothy is visiting herself upon them. What will she do with her in the house? She will feel eyes on her all the time. She will have to cook for the angel of death. She cannot bear it. If Maury were well, it would be one thing. She would be happy to serve anyone at her table.

    She and the woman wake him for his pills. They bring him lunch on a tray that clips onto his chair and try to get him to eat it. He pushes the food around on his plate. "Eat a few bites," Rose urges.

    "I'll tell you what," he tells Rose in a light, dry voice; he weighs almost nothing. "You get this young lady to go down to 160th Street. I want a number 11 on light rye, extra lean, a side order of onion rings, and a cherry Coke."

    "You aren't going to eat all that."

    "I was going to share the onion rings with you," he says gallantly.

    "But you aren't going to finish all that," Rose tells him. They send the young lady down to 160th Street all the time. Rose tells him the food is bad for his digestion, and he makes a face.

    "What'll be?" he says. "Am I going to die from one corned beef and tongue on rye?"

    "Don't talk that way," Rose snaps. She hates hearing him talk like that, because he is joking not only about his own condition but about her predicament, too.

    He seems to be laughing at her, his eyes sparkling, magnified by the lenses of his glasses. "Aw, don't worry, kid," he tells her.

*

Dorothy is forty-five, and she sleeps and sleeps. She snores in the study on Rose's green silk nonconvertible sofa, her face against the bolster and all the antimacassars in a pile on the floor. She wears jogging suits but she never goes jogging, and in the mornings she uses up all the hot water in her shower. Emerging from the bathroom, she just shakes the water out of her cropped hair like a great black bear. Then, day in and day out, she sits and watches her father sleep, waits for him to wake up. The minute he wakes, she pounces, asking him questions. How is his heart, why this medication or that. She wants to know about the doctor. Then she starts asking him about his life. What he did in the union, how he did piecework, cutting the fabric. But it's all a ruse, as Rose can clearly see. As soon as Dorothy starts asking Maury about his life, she starts talking about her own. And then she starts in schreiing at him. "Father." She says it in deep voice--not just deep but lugubrious, and with an Israeli accent so dark and smoky you would have thought she was a native. "I have come here to be with you."

    "What did she say?" Maury asks Rose.

    "Because I am your only child," Dorothy continues, "and so I have come here to be with you, even though I never had the chance to know you. I have wanted to come and talk to you, so that you and I would know each other just once. I have wanted to tell you about my life, what I have done--"

    "I can't hear you, dear," says Maury.

    "What I have done," Dorothy tells him loudly.

    "Yes, what have you done?" Maury asks. "I have asked myself this question: What I have done to deserve this silence from you? You forgetting me, your daughter."

    "Listen," Maury explains, "this was long ago. Needless to say, your mother and I were not on the best of terms. She threw me out. We had a divorce."

    "But there was me also."

    "So you went with her, too. Your mother said I wasn't fit to raise her child. All right, fine. I wasn't going to argue with the woman."

    He is falling asleep; in his stare, talking wears him out. Rose tries to shoo Dorothy away. Big, heavy tears fill Dorothy's eyes. It's horrible, as if, God forbid, Dorothy is starting up a funeral in the apartment. If she had come to bring some good cheer, it would be one thing. If she had come to help. But weeping and complaining is all she does. And she snoops, Rose is sure of it. She has heard her twice in the night, walking around the apartment. She thinks she heard her try to open the secretary where Rose keeps her Venetian glasses, the acorn tea set, the crystal she bought when she worked at Tiffany. At night she imagines she can hear her opening the glass doors. Then, during the day, she realizes it cannot be so, because Dorothy has no interest in the things in the secretary. Dorothy has probably never even heard of such a place as Tiffany, where Rose once stood behind the long glass counters and brushed with royalty in the form of the Duke of Windsor and his men browsing through the silver and the jewelry. Dorothy would not understand such things.

[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES ...]

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Introduction

We hope that the following information will spark a lively, informative discussion among members of your reading group and will enrich your enjoyment of the novel.

Reading Group Discussion Points
  1. Each member of The Family Markowitz has his or her own idea about what a family should be. How do grandmother Rose, sons Ed and Henry, and granddaughter Miriam define family? How do these ideas lead to conflict?
  2. Religion plays an important role in this book. In what ways does religious observance change from one generation to the next? Do these changes reflect shifts you have observed in the Jewish American family?
  3. Henry Markowitz's wedding to a non-Jewish English woman is a shock to the family in more ways than one. What do you think motivates his marriage to a woman who is so different from the people he has grown up with in Brooklyn? Do you find his intermarriage disturbing? Why does he believe that his intermarriage is something he has been preparing for all his life?
  4. Contrast the two weddings in the book, Henry's wedding in the Oxford chapel, and his niece Miriam's neo-Orthodox celebration. What are the values expressed in these events? Do they have anything in common?
  5. Discuss the changing roles of women in the Markowitz family. How do Rose, Sarah, and Miriam differ in their ambitions, opportunities, and views of themselves? To what extent do you think history and social trends shape these characters and their dreams? To what extent does individual personality play a part?
  6. Some reviewers have written that Rose Markowitz is the central character in this book. Do you agree? Or would you propose a differentcharacter as the linchpin of the family?
  7. Books, libraries, poems, and articles are central motifs in The Family Markowitz. Why is the written word so important to this family?
  8. Each of the stories in this book is told from a different point of view. How do the shifts in point of view affect your feelings for these characters? Did you find that you changed your mind about some of these characters as you came to the end of the book? Or did you stick to your first impressions?
  9. A pressing issue throughout the book is the need to care for the elderly Rose Markowitz. What do you think of the choices Ed, Sarah, and Henry make? Do you sympathize with Rose in her lonely plight? Or with her harried children? Or both?
  10. Allegra Goodman has been called "a kinder, gentler Philip Roth." Do you think this statement is accurate? Or do you think a better comparison might be made with another writer?
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Reading Group Guide

We hope that the following information will spark a lively, informative discussion among members of your reading group and will enrich your enjoyment of the novel.

Reading Group Discussion Points

  1. Each member of The Family Markowitz has his or her own idea about what a family should be. How do grandmother Rose, sons Ed and Henry, and granddaughter Miriam define family? How do these ideas lead to conflict?
  2. Religion plays an important role in this book. In what ways does religious observance change from one generation to the next? Do these changes reflect shifts you have observed in the Jewish American family?
  3. Henry Markowitz's wedding to a non-Jewish English woman is a shock to the family in more ways than one. What do you think motivates his marriage to a woman who is so different from the people he has grown up with in Brooklyn? Do you find his intermarriage disturbing? Why does he believe that his intermarriage is something he has been preparing for all his life?
  4. Contrast the two weddings in the book, Henry's wedding in the Oxford chapel, and his niece Miriam's neo-Orthodox celebration. What are the values expressed in these events? Do they have anything in common?
  5. Discuss the changing roles of women in the Markowitz family. How do Rose, Sarah, and Miriam differ in their ambitions, opportunities, and views of themselves? To what extent do you think history and social trends shape these characters and their dreams? To what extent does individual personality play a part?
  6. Some reviewers have written that Rose Markowitz is the central character in this book. Do you agree? Or would you propose a differentcharacter as the linchpin of the family?
  7. Books, libraries, poems, and articles are central motifs in The Family Markowitz. Why is the written word so important to this family?
  8. Each of the stories in this book is told from a different point of view. How do the shifts in point of view affect your feelings for these characters? Did you find that you changed your mind about some of these characters as you came to the end of the book? Or did you stick to your first impressions?
  9. A pressing issue throughout the book is the need to care for the elderly Rose Markowitz. What do you think of the choices Ed, Sarah, and Henry make? Do you sympathize with Rose in her lonely plight? Or with her harried children? Or both?
  10. Allegra Goodman has been called "a kinder, gentler Philip Roth." Do you think this statement is accurate? Or do you think a better comparison might be made with another writer?
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2006

    Gentle, well written, great characters

    Although this is a novel,it is also a selection of short previously published 'works'. They share the same well written characters, and provide an interesting insight into each of their lives, all set in the lead up to an Orthodox Jewish wedding. All the episodes reinforce the importance of our place and link with history and tradition, but also remind us that we should also be willing to welcome change. A clever, humorous read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 26, 2005

    Where is this book going?

    This book is a hodge podge. I have no idea what is going on. It was slightly humorous in the beginning, but now it is all choppy and disconnected. A shame because I adored her other book, Kaaterskill Falls.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2000

    surprise

    the beginning of this book was witty and true to form. after some time of reading, it lost focus and the entire story went absolutely nowhere. skip this one. save time

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

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