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Clara Mondschein's Melancholia Hardcover – September 1, 2002

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Two generations of Holocaust survivors tell their grim, affecting tales in alternating chapters in this somber, slow-going first novel by short story author Raeff. The more interesting is the first person account of 85-year-old matriarch Ruth Mondschein, as told to a dying young man in the Christopher Street AIDS Hospice, to which Ruth treks most days from her apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Ruth hails from an upper-middle-class Jewish household in Vienna, where at a young age she falls into a disastrous affair with a wealthy gentile, then a stable marriage to the gay doctor who treats her father. The couple are eventually taken from a hospital where they are working in the Austrian Alps and deported to a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia (called, fictitiously, Pribor), where Ruth's baby, Clara, is miraculously and safely delivered. Alternately, teenaged Deborah Gelb tells of growing up in Englewood, N.J., around a mother (Clara) who suffers severe fits of debilitating depression, probably stemming from her traumatic camp birth. Deborah's voice is chatty and na‹ve, and her narrative is full of schoolgirl details. She tries to please her mother, but tends to awaken painful memories instead, as when mother and daughter flirt with the same lesbian painter, Marisol, on a trip to Madrid. In the end, Clara's so-called melancholia, depicted second-hand, remains incomprehensible to the family and to the reader. Ruth's tale, in contrast, is harrowing, and her voice luminously straightforward. Although its outcome is known from the start-allowing for little suspense-the novel is rich in detail and insight.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Clara Mondschein's melancholia, or depression, arises ostensibly from her having being born in a concentration camp during World War II. Yet interestingly, this affecting tale by first novelist Raeff, herself the child of refugees from the war, does not depend on the horrors of the fictional camp, Pribor, somewhere in Czechoslovakia, to jolt her readers. In fact, the camp experiences are not the main point, and Clara is not the main protagonist. Of far more interest than this woman who lies in bed and refuses to come out and join her family for weeks on end are her cellist daughter, Deborah, one of the novel's two main narrators, and her mother, Ruth, who also narrates. The captivating story here is the account of Ruth's extraordinary life as she relates it to Tommy, a hospice patient who lies dying of AIDS. Finding much to identify with in Ruth's life, Tommy urges her to continue her tale every day when she comes to visit because it gives him "something to fantasize about besides [my own] death." Ruth relates the long life she has shared with her recently deceased husband, Karl, and as she does so, we feel the sweep of the century, from prewar Vienna through the Holocaust to present-day New York. Recommended for all literary collections where sensitive writing set against an historical backdrop is appreciated.
Edward Cone, New York
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 258 pages
  • Publisher: MacAdam/Cage; First Edition edition (September 1, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1931561168
  • ISBN-13: 978-1931561167
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,031,061 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 19, 2002
Format: Hardcover
I found this book a very insightful and gripping account of ways in which the Holocaust affected three generations of women. I highly recommend it not only to readers who are interested in the Holocaust and its survivors, but also to those who are interested in women's lives and relationships.
The book thoughtfully examines ways in which people respond to horrific tragedy and goes on to discern shadows cast by these experiences on later generations. It is composed of two narratives, one of Ruth, the resilient Holocaust survivor, who tells her story to a dying AIDS patient, and that of Deborah, Ruth's searching teenage granddaughter. Both women tell their own stories, and separately paint a haunting portrait of Clara, Ruth's sensitive and suffering daughter, and Deborah's mother.
I think that Ms. Raeff is especially successful with Ruth's story, which really drives the book. When Ruth spoke, I just couldn't put the book down! Ruth grows up in Vienna in a family riven by tragedy; her mother runs away and her father, under the stress of growing anti-Semitism, becomes depressed and eventually dies of "melancholia". Following a failed love affair, Ruth marries her father's doctor, who it turns out, is gay. They find a hiding place during the war in the Austrian Alps, are eventually found out, and spend the remainder of the war in Pribor, a fictional concentration camp. Under the favor of the camp commander and the protection of other prisoners, Ruth is somehow able to survive, give birth to a daughter, Clara, and make her way to a refugee camp in Germany and later New York.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By M. Alemi on October 5, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Mailer once said the novel provides the highest moral judgment. Clara Mondchein's Melancholia is a small novel dealing with big themes and a somber history, and its morality derives partially from its powerful descriptions of a horrible past that only the harebrained dare to deny. For example, the description of the fictitious Pribor camp on page 110 is heartbreaking; the image stayed in my mind for days of how the prisoners wouldn't speak to each other.

The author, Anne Raeff, is subtle in her description of mood and a minimalist in depiction of physical surroundings, qualities that somehow breathe soul into this tale of loyalty, survival, and the hideous nature of depression. When a writer, especially a first time novelist, attempts a story of such historical weight and emotional charge, it is difficult to resist threading into waters that in hindsight is nothing but schmaltz. But Raeff does not take confidence so far as to get preachy or patronizing.

The main character is Clara Mondschein of the title, who suffers from depression and lives indoors for greater swaths of the novel. But she's not telling her story, thank God for that, because given her illness it would've made for an uninteresting read. Luckily, the task befalls on the two closest people to her, or two people whom, by convention or upbringing, we expect to be her closest relations. Her mother, Ruth, and daughter, Deborah. Ruth mainly narrates the background story of the family to Tommy, who's dying of AIDS, and who is authentically and believably portrayed in a side story where he has shunned his ordinary parents for their lack of sympathy.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 30, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Clara Mondschein's Melancholia is one of those books that you wish would never end! What a great new addition to the contemporary literary scene!
The book alternates between the voices of Mrs. Mondschein, a holocaust survivor from a modest Jewish family in Vienna, now living on Manhattan's west side, and her granddaughter, Deborah, an adolescent growing up in Tenafly, NJ, a New York City suburb. I could go on indefinitely listening to the 85-year-old Mrs. Mondschein telling her life story to Tommy as he lies dying of AIDS, and I could imagine forging ahead with Deborah as she charts her own future life course. As grandmother and granddaughter narrate, they thoughtfully weave together not only the compelling dramas of their own lives, but numerous issues that have pervaded the human condition probably since human life began. In her writing, Ms. Raeff is particularly adept at creating vivid moods, and describing the subtleties of contextual ambience, enabling the reader to really feel almost physically present in the book's varied settings -- from a dingy apartment in 1930's Vienna, to a lively neighborhood bar in 1990's Madrid, to a subway station in New York City (to name just a few settings).
With Mrs. Mondschein, we ponder the horrors of the holocaust from the distance of 50 years of subsequent living to see how some of its victims and survivors suffered, but also emerged with new strength and hope for a better world. Ms. Raeff's presentation of Mrs. Mondschein's time in a concentration camp creatively departs from the usual descriptions, as Mrs. Mondschein enters into an enigmatic relationship with the camp's commandant. Mrs.
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