May 15, 2007
Charlotte Mendelson: When We Were Bad
Charlotte Mendelson would not mind, I hope, being described as a Jewish novelist. Not because she is a novelist who happens to be Jewish, but because Jewishness is the subject matter in which her wonderful third novel When We Were Bad richly revels. Howard Jacobson last year published Kalooki Nights, which he described as “the most Jewish novel that has ever been written by anybody, anywhere,” and it’s a model that Mendelson might have had in mind.
Which is not to say that When We Were Bad is offputting or excluding to us goyisher readers. It is an embracing, romping, all-consuming balm of a book. And Jacobson is not a bad comparison overall, although what we have here is a dilute version: it has much of his wit and guile but maintains a much steadier pace, with more respect for good straightforward storytelling, than Jacobson’s otherwise terrific books like The Making of Henry and Who’s Sorry Now? (Marina Lewycka is another comparison some might see, but Mendelson is a far greater stylist than that suggests.)
And the story it tells is one of family: the Rubins, headed by Claudia – rabbi, voluptuous celebrity, “schtuppable pioneer” – and her husband Norman. Norman’s career has been so restricted of life in the shadow of Claudia’s that he is not sure what it is any more. But he rediscovers his passion, between sheets of one sort or another, and fears he is about to betray his wife. All of which is to say nothing of the children.
We have Leo (“he is a lawyer. No one expects them to be handsome”), whose wedding day opens the proceedings. Em, “plump-skinned and shining-haired as a French king’s mistress, not a modern girl at all.” Simeon, “thick-lashed as a baby, his dark dreadlocks tied in a topknot for the occasion like a bandit prince pretending to be tame.” And Frances, the roundest character in the book, whose sympathy and self-discovery hold it all together, even as she herself is falling apart. Her storyline – like most of the storylines in a book about secrets and transformations, it would be wrong to reveal it – grounds the book in a seriousness of purpose just when it risks flying off into breathless farce.
What shines through every line – and I do mean every line – of When We Were Bad is a vivid joy in language that cannot be faked. Rather than making you laugh intermittently, it makes you smile more or less constantly: at the cleverness of the writing or the aptness of the imagery even when it’s not being funny. In particular Mendelson has a way of turning the story (and characters) in ways that are surprising but plausible, and she does a good line in the betrayals of the body:
The fluttering feeling in Frances’s chest was giving way to felty deadness, as if she were filling with cement…
The butterflies in her stomach turn to alligators…
Her brain feels icy and exposed, as if Jay has sliced off the top of her skull and plunged her hand in…
Of all the body parts, however, it’s the heart that makes When We Were Bad so good. Opened in the right mood, it could be a source of almost guilt-inducing pure reading pleasure. Not Jewish guilt. The other one.