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Spanning the length and breadth of the twentieth century, Alice Mattison's masterful In Case We're Separated looks at a family of Jewish immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s and follows the urban, emotionally turbulent lives of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren against a backdrop of political assassination, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS epidemic. Beginning with the title story, which introduces Bobbie Kaplowitz—a single mother in 1954 Brooklyn whose lover is married and whose understanding of ...
Spanning the length and breadth of the twentieth century, Alice Mattison's masterful In Case We're Separated looks at a family of Jewish immigrants in the 1920s and 1930s and follows the urban, emotionally turbulent lives of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren against a backdrop of political assassination, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS epidemic. Beginning with the title story, which introduces Bobbie Kaplowitz—a single mother in 1954 Brooklyn whose lover is married and whose understanding of life is changed by a broken kitchen appliance—Mattison displays her unparalleled gift for storytelling and for creating rich, multidimensional characters, a gift that has led the Los Angeles Times to praise her as "a writer's writer."
"You're a beautiful woman, sweetheart," Edwin Friend began. His girlfriend, Bobbie Kaplowitz, paid attention: Edwin rarely spoke up and complimented her. He tipped his chair against her sink and glanced behind him, but the drain board wasn't piled so high that the back of his head would start an avalanche today. He took a decisive drink from his glass of water and continued, "But in that particular dress you look fat."
It was a bright Saturday morning in October 1954. Edwin often visited Bobbie on Saturday mornings, and she had dressed up a little, anticipating. Now she didn't bother to speak. She reached behind to unfasten the hook and eye at the back of her neck, worked the zipper down without help, stepped out of the dress, and in her underwear took the sharp scissors. She cut a big piece of brown wrapping paper from a roll she kept next to the refrigerator, while Edwin said several times, "What are you doing?"
Bobbie folded the dress, which was chestnut brown with a rustand-cream-colored arrowlike decoration that crossed her breasts and pointed fetchingly down. She set the folded dress in the middle of the paper, wrapped and taped it, and addressed the package to her slimmer sister in Pittsburgh. Then she went into the bedroom and changed into something seriously gorgeous.
"Come, Bradley," she called, though Edwin would have babysat, but Bradley came quickly. He was a thin six-year-old with dark curls and the habit of resting his hands on his hips, so from the front he looked slightly supervisory and from the back his pointed elbows stuck out like outlines of small wings. They left Edwin looking surprised. At the post office, a considerable walk away, the clerk said the package had to be tied with string, but lent Bobbie a big roll of twine and his scissors. Bobbie was wearing high-heeled shoes, and she braced herself on the counter with one gloved hand. She was short and the shoes made her wobble. She took the end of the twine in her mouth, grasped it between her teeth, and jerked her head back to pull it tight. It was brown twine, now reddened with her lipstick, and its taste was woody and dry. Fibers separating from the twine might travel across Bobbie's tongue and make her gag. For all she knew, her poor old teeth might loosen.
Much was brown: the twine, the paper around the package (even the dress inside if one could see it), and the wooden counter with its darkened brass decorations. The counter was old enough to have taken on the permanent sour coloring of wooden and metal objects in Brooklyn that had remained in one place -- where any hand might close upon them -- since the century turned. But Bobbie's lipstick, and the shoes she'd changed into, and her suit -- which had a straight skirt with a kick pleat -- were red. She wore a half-slip because she was a loose woman. Joke. Edwin's hands always went first to her bare, fleshy midriff. Then he seemed to enjoy urging the nylon petticoat down, sliding the rubber knobs up and out of the metal loops that attached her stockings to her girdle, even tugging the girdle off. She never let him take off her nylons because he wasn't careful.
Bobbie tied a firm knot. Then she changed her mind. She poked the roll of twine and the scissors toward the clerk with an apologetic wave, called to Bradley -- who was hopping from one dark medallion on the tile floor to the next, flapping his arms -- and went home. As Bobbie walked, one eye on Bradley, the package dangled from her finger on its string like a new purchase. At home she found Edwin taking apart her Sunbeam Mixmaster with her only tool, a rusty screwdriver.
"Didn't you say it wasn't working?" Edwin asked.
"There's nothing wrong with it. I didn't say anything."
Edwin was married. He had told Bobbie he was a bachelor who couldn't marry her because he lived with his mother, who was old, silly, and anti-Semitic. But his mother lived in her own apartment and was not silly or anti-Semitic as far as he knew. Edwin had a wife named Dorothy, a dental hygienist. She'd stopped working when their first child was born -- they had two daughters -- but sometimes she helped out her old boss. Now, fumbling to put Bobbie's mixer back together, Edwin began to wonder uneasily whether it wasn't Dorothy, dressing for work in her uniform, who happened to mention a broken mixer. He had never confused the two women before in the years he'd been Bobbie's boyfriend.
Edwin's monkey business had begun by mistake. He was a salesman for a baking supply company, and Bobbie was in charge of the payroll at a large commercial bakery. Though Edwin didn't wear a ring, he believed that everyone in the firms through which he passed assumed he was somebody's husband. However, a clerk in Bobbie's office had moved to Brooklyn from Minneapolis. When this young woman, who had distinctive habits, asked him straight out, Edwin misheard the question and said no. He had heard, "Mr. Friend, are you merry?"
Edwin was good-natured but not merry, and the question puzzled him until he found himself having lunch with Bobbie, to whom the young woman from Minneapolis had introduced him. He realized that he was on a date. Bobbie seemed eager and attractive, while Dorothy liked to make love about as often as she liked to order tickets and go to a Broadway show, or invite her whole family for dinner, and with about as much planning. Not knowing exactly what he had in mind, Edwin suggested that Bobbie meet him for a drink after work, nervous that she'd refuse anything less than dinner and a movie. But she agreed. Drinking a quick whiskey sour in a darkened lounge, she suggested that next time he come to her house. . . .
Excerpted from In Case We're Separated by Alice Mattison Copyright © 2005 by Alice Mattison.
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|In case we're separated||1|
|Not yet, not yet||19|
|I am not your mother||31|
|In the dark, who pats the air||55|
|The bad Jew||106|
|Boy in winter||175|
|Pastries at the bus stop||201|
|The odds it would be you||217|
In 1950s Brooklyn, the single mother of a six-year-old boy learns something about her boyfriend and herself through a Sunbeam Mixmaster. Years earlier, a young Jewish girl in Eastern Europe is made to give up her baby daughter, who comes back to her in time for them to grow old together in Florida. A New York woman in her fifties finds love while helping her son move in with a woman she doesn't like. A gay writer in Boston plays detective when his nephew's girlfriend is the victim of a crime. In Case We're Separated chronicles a Jewish-American family, following multiple generations through emotionally turbulent lives lived against the background of political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and the AIDS epidemic.
Questions for Discussion
1. In the title story, "In Case We're Separated," Bobbie realizes that Edwin is married. Why isn't she more upset?
2. "Maybe life required secrets. What an idea." (page 18 HC). How does this last sentence of the first story look forward to the remaining stories? Who keeps secrets, and why?
3. All the stories are interrelated by familial ties, as well as by Mattison's use of six repeated images in a pattern that imitates the repetition of words in a poetic form, the sestina. At what point did you notice the repeated use of images throughout each story? Did you want to go back and find the images in each story?
4. In "Boy in Winter," why is Bradley so determined to find out the identity of Jo's attacker? Do you think he acts ethically at the end?
5. In "In the Dark, Who Pats the Air" Jo claims to believe in a ghost and lives much of the time in herimagination. Do you think her boyfriend, Josh, understands her? Do you think they will stay together?
6. We see Bradley at six, afraid of being separated from his mother; as a teenager, when she's diagnosed with breast cancer; in his late twenties, lost on a lake with her when she's dying; and in his fifties, not getting along with his partner, Warren. At the end of "Boy in Winter" he says that anger has waited for him all his life. What does he mean?
7. After Sylvia collapses in Joan's office, she wakes up and dismisses everyone's concerns. How is this typical of her?
8. In "The Bad Jew," what does Ruth want the Passover Seder to accomplish for her and can it give her what she needs?
9. "Brooklyn Sestina" opens with the line, "Crates of Live Chickens," as an example of what makes Lillian wish to die. With whom do you sympathize in this story? Is Ruth doing her best or is she annoyingly clumsy in her attempts to help her sister? Is Lillian authentically in need or a little self-involved?
10. Balancing a busy career and taking care of her elderly parents, Joan feels angry at her mother, and then is angry at herself for feeling this way. Why is Joan—a philanthropic director of a nonprofit organization offering mental health services to poor women—conflicted by these emotions about her own mother?
11. Laura takes delight in being Jewish. Ruth, her mother, is ambivalent about it. Which of the two takes religion more seriously?
Posted March 5, 2007
As a Jew, I was expecting to like this book. However, I found it boring and the stories jumped around too much between present and past. Also, there was no character development and I found that I could not connect with these characters or care about what was happening to them. As I neared the end of the book, I gave up. There was no plot, no central theme. I did not understand how this could be the story of immigrant Jews and their offspring. It seemed that this extended family and the events that occured could be from any ethnic group.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.