Too Many Menby Lily Brett
Ruth Rothwax, a successful woman with her own business, Rothwax Correspondence, can find order and meaning in writing words for other people—condolence letters, thank-you letters, even you-were-great-in-bed letters. But as the daughter of Edek Rothwax, an Auschwitz survivor with a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to the English language, Ruth can find no words
Ruth Rothwax, a successful woman with her own business, Rothwax Correspondence, can find order and meaning in writing words for other people—condolence letters, thank-you letters, even you-were-great-in-bed letters. But as the daughter of Edek Rothwax, an Auschwitz survivor with a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to the English language, Ruth can find no words to understand the loss of her family experienced during World War II.
Ruth is obsessed with the idea of returning to Poland with her father, but she doesn't quite understand why she feels this so intensely. To make sense of her family's past, yes. To visit the places where her beloved mother and father lived and almost died, certainly. But she knows there's more to this trip. By facing Poland, and the past, she can finally confront her own future.
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The last time Ruth Rothwax had been with a group of Germans, she had wanted to poke their eyes out. The feeling had sprung out of her so suddenly and so unexpectedly that it had almost bowled her over. Where had this feeling come from? It had been a fully developed, ferocious wish -- not some half-baked, halfhearted aggressive inclination. There had been no buildup, no preparation. One minute she was deep in her own thoughts, the next minute she wanted to gouge an old woman's eyeballs out. To stick her middle and index fingers right into those wrinkled sockets until the eyes dislodged themselves.
She had felt nauseated for hours after the incident. It had been in Poland, in Gdansk. She had been staying at the Hotel Marta. The Marta was meant to be a luxurious hotel. But something had gone wrong. The tall, bleak building was awkward and ungainly. It stood on its large block of land, alone and unrelated to anything around it. It was impossible to feel at home at the Marta. A wind howled through the vast lobby each time the front doors were opened. And nothing was where it could be expected to be. The concierge's desk was hidden behind the women's toilets and the elevators were at the back of the building, a five-minute walk from the front desk.
The hotel was near the center of the city. It felt as though it was in the middle of nowhere. Ruth's room was on the seventeenth floor. There was an international golf tournament on in Gdansk at the time. Every guest at the Marta seemed to be wearing a cap and carrying a set of golf clubs. There was a uniformity in the ensembles, too. Thewomen wore pale sweaters and pastel pants or skirts. The men were dressed in knit tops and plaid or patterned trousers.
The golfers had unnerved Ruth. She didn't know much about golf, but she didn't think Poland was high on the list of the world's premier golfing locations. She had never heard anyone say they were going to Gdansk to play golf. If people knew of Gdansk at all, they knew of it as a port city, the home of Solidarity. Still, there were a lot of golf-playing Germans, Scots, and English at the Marta.
The German whose eyesight Ruth had wanted to eradicate got into the lift with her on her second night in Gdansk. There were four Germans. Two men and two women, in their mid- to late seventies. It was late. After 11 P.M. Ruth was very tired. She moved over to make room for them. The two men were in tuxedos; the women wore evening dresses. They had obviously been celebrating.
One of the women laughed flirtatiously with one of the men. The laughter was the slightly off-key laughter of someone who had been drinking. The man smiled. The woman laughed, again. A high-pitched trill of a laugh. And then it happened. With no warning. All Ruth had felt was a rush of blood to her head. Suddenly her face had been tight with tension. She had turned toward the laughing woman. She had wanted to clamp the woman's laugh right off. To shut it down permanently. "It's not that funny," she wanted to say. She wanted to jab her fingers deep into the woman's pale blue eyes and repeat, "It's not that funny." Ruth's heart had started pounding. She had held her arms firmly by her side, at the back of the elevator. She had pressed her hands into her hips in an effort to anchor them. She was terrified that they would take flight of their own accord. Act independently of the rest of her. She had thought her fingers might strike out and dig and prod until they had reached the woman's brain.
The elevator was a particularly slow one. Ruth had thought it would never get to the seventeenth floor. Her hands burned and her skin itched. "It's not that funny," she wanted to say. "It's not that funny." She had kept her mouth clenched shut. The woman kept laughing. Finally, the elevator stopped at the seventeenth floor. Ruth got out. She walked unsteadily to her room. She sat down on the king-size bed with its blue brocade bedspread and trembled.
That was a year ago. Ruth shuddered at the memory. She felt cold despite the fact that she had already been running for twenty minutes. She was in Poland again. In Warsaw. What was she doing in Poland? It was a good question. She hadn't come on a whim. She had spent two years talking her father, eighty-one-year-old Edek Rothwax, into joining her on this trip. He was flying in from Melbourne tomorrow.
Ruth checked the pedometer around her waist. She was doing seven miles an hour. She pressed another button. She saw that already she had run almost three miles. The pedometer was strapped onto a belt that also held a drink flask and a cassette recorder. A small microphone was attached to her headphones. This allowed her to record lists of things to be done as she ran. They were breathless recordings, but Ruth was able to decipher them. Her credit cards and some zlotys were tucked into her socks.
In New York, where she lived, she looked like any other runner. Most runners had water bottles around their waists and Walkmans plugged into their ears. But not in Poland. In Poland, Ruth looked weird. Several people in the hotel lobby had stared at her as she left for her run this morning. The doorman, the porter, and a group of Germans. The Germans stared hard and looked perplexed. She had smiled at the Germans. This had unnerved them further. They had all looked away.
Ruth loved running. She loved feeling her...Too Many Men. Copyright © by Lily Brett. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Meet the Author
Originally from Australia, Lily Brett is the critically acclaimed, internationally bestselling author of four previous novels, three collections of essays, and seven collections of poetry. She is married to the Australian painter David Rankin. They have three children and live in New York City.
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I got very into the characters in this book. I loved it right up until the end, when I was totally left hanging. It ends with one character literally in mid-sentence. I actually thought my copy was missing some pages at the end, but it wasn't. I thought there would be a sequel, but there hasn't been. Is this how it was supposed to end? Do I just not 'get it?'
Brett's mother and father were Holocaust survivors who moved to Australia, where she is still known best and where this wonderful book became a #1 bestseller after its publication about 18 months ago. Brett has a body of work behind her poems, essays and three other novels so why her latest has taken so long to reach these shores, especially with a glowing blurb by no less than Simon Schama, is a mystery. It is the story of Ruth Rothwax, a successful New York businesswoman who decides to take her 80-year-old father, Edek, back to his native Poland to revisit the scenes of his childhood and the camps where he spent the desperate wartime years. Ruth and Edek are both vivid creations, she a highly organized person who speaks her mind and is constantly outraged by the lingering anti-Semitism and evasiveness she finds everywhere in Poland; he a seemingly simple man driven by a powerful lust for life food, friendship and sex. Their adventures in Poland as they revisit Edek's childhood home, barter for some of his expropriated household items and share visits to Auschwitz and Birkenau with busloads of tourists who see themselves as following in the footsteps of Steven Spielberg, are at once haunting, riotously funny and deeply touching. Brett's style is so deceptively easy that the book, though long, reads as swiftly as a thriller; and what might seem a claustrophobic dependence on two characters is avoided by a series of canny devices: Ruth's sardonic meditations on life in New York; a strange meeting with a German hotel guest whose husband wished he was a Jew; the introduction of a pair of lusty Polish widows with their sights set on Edek; and, above all, a series of imaginary conversations Ruth has with Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Hoess, from his postexecution existence in a kind of posthumous limbo, where he must attempt to pass impossible tests for heavenly access. These plumb the depths of the astounding banalities of evil and give the book a surrealistic richness of reference. The hardest effect to bring off in fiction is a vision that is at once tender, deeply comic and yet aware of the ultimate sadness of life, the lachrymae rerum. Brett has succeeded triumphantly in the most delightful surprise of the year so far. Agent, Heather Schroeder, ICM. (Aug.)Forecast: This has real bestseller potential if carefully promoted, and what is so far planned as only a local New York tour could be extended. Powerful reviews and excellent word-of-mouth could make it a natural for handselling by independents.