Top critical review
7 people found this helpful
The Plot Against Madison
on November 29, 2009
Part of the fun of reading a novel patterned on an older story is knowing that story, and in the case of "Good for the Jews" it is the Biblical tale of Esther, married to the king of Persia, who saves the Jewish people from annihilation. All of the characters in Debra Spark's novel have names that recall the story: Alex (the Persian king, Ahasuerus); Ellen (Esther, the beautiful Jewish woman who married the king); Valerie (Vashti, the king's wife who falls out of favor); Mose (Mordecai, the relative who raised the orphaned Esther); and Hyman (Haman, the villain of the story). A quick catch-up on the Book of Esther will make "Good for the Jews" a more pleasurable read. The premise of the novel is an interesting one; it examines modern-day insidious anti-Semitism in a progressive university town (Madison, Wisconsin), and it does so not by looking at the university itself but in such peripheral places as a public school and an art gallery. In particular, it looks at the contrast in responses to anti-Semitic prejudice between generations, between Ellen, young and non-observant, and Mose, old enough to remember how the state of Israel came to be.
"Good for the Jews" is fun to read, at first. The tension that develops between Mose, a high school history teacher whose innovative methods have made him a popular teacher with disaffected students at risk of dropping out, and Hyman, a new principal, is believable and engaging. Any teacher who has ever been in thrall to an Administrator with a Big Idea or has sought redress through the grindingly slow wheels of a school bureaucracy will enjoy this. For most of the novel, Mose is the most compelling character, with his sense of what it means to be a righteous (in the good sense) man and his love for students and his adopted daughters. The other subplots are less engaging, particularly the ones that center on Alex, a rather feckless superintendent of schools, and his dissolving marriage. As regards the depiction of Alex's sex life---only Phillip Roth could make this any good. And Ellen's twenty-something innocence is frequently not quite believable and often just this side of vacuous.
A story has to end somewhere. The Book of Esther culminates in a hanging, and so does "Good for the Jews." It is here, in the denouement, that the gears of the plot lie exposed. The villain is brought to an end with a bit of exposition so rushed and superficial and unlikely, even in this age of falsified resumes, that you may find yourself raising an eyebrow. A scene between Ellen and an inebriated Hyman, in particular, owes its existence to the Bible story but seems forced. Mose, engaged simultaneously in grief counseling and sleuthing the villain's fictitious past, is uncovered as a teacher who--in 2006--has never even heard of Google. As a teacher in Mose's age demographic, I'd have to say---unlikely, even if he has bypassed all the technology workshops ordered up by forward-looking administrators. In the end, "Good for the Jews" is an interesting foray into terrain where writers like Roth, Bellow, and--to bring in a younger writer-- Allegra Goodman write more compellingly.