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Clara Mondschein's Melancholia Hardcover – September 1, 2002

4.3 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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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: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,796,868 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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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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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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Format: Hardcover
I loved this book and didn’t want it to come to an end, so immersed had I become in the world of these characters.

“Clara Mondschein’s Melancholia” is a rich and textured portrait of three generations of women, all formed—in one way or another—by the dark history of the 20th century. Ruth, the grandmother, is a Jew who survived the Holocaust. Her daughter Clara was born in a concentration camp and has never overcome the depression that surely began in her first weeks of life. Deborah, Clara’s daughter, is a young woman coming of age in 1980s suburban New Jersey, a place that is far from antiseptic, although it sometimes seems so on the surface.

Raeff deftly weaves the stories of the three generations together, suggesting how the teenage Deborah is tied to forces that took shape long before her birth.

My sympathies were firmly with Deborah, whose life is, at first, overshadowed by the suffering of the older generations. Yet Deborah has her own multi-colored, multi-dimensional reality, enriched by her love of music. When the adult world becomes too much for her, she takes her cello into the New Jersey woods and plays just for herself and the birds.

Later, when she and her parents visit Madrid, Deborah hangs out alone in the bars of Lavapiés and befriends an aging, alcoholic Irishman, who provides her with a devil-may-care perspective that her own family lacks. At one point, Deborah and the Irishman set off on a misconceived, ambling trip to Avila during the heat of the day--one of the most memorable and amusing, scenes in the book.

The humor in this novel is not laugh-out-loud comedy, rather it’s a quiet, droll humor that will leave you smiling and musing long after you finish the last page.

Although her subject matter is sometimes heavy, Raeff writes with a light touch. Rather like the ingénues of Chekhov, Raeff’s teenage character brings a gust of youthful innocence into Old World darkness.
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