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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on December 14, 2009
I found the plot to be much too predictable. I understand it was based on the Book of Esther, but knowing almost exactly what would happen - even when I hadn't read Esther - prevented me from being engaged with either the story or the characters. Ellen being every middle-aged man's fantasy also turned me off: drop-dead gorgeous, non-intellectual, naive, blonde, and a virgin at 25. The only things lacking were a 29-inch waist and 40D cups. I wasn't convinced by the love relationship between Alex and Ellen, based as it probably was on sex, his age, and her beauty, and the author didn't give me any reasons to believe otherwise. Alex's relationship with his ex-wife Valerie was much more interesting due to her ironic sense of humor and prickliness.

Mose was the only fully-drawn, interesting character; I could visualize him perfectly, and the novel seemed to pick up whenever he was in it. But his conflict with Clark was completely predictable - of course Clark would be overly officious and eventually be exposed as an anti-semite. Yawn. The denouement was rushed and felt like it had come from an entirely different novel. The quick-thinking assertive Martha in particular was completely different from the depressed, agoraphobic, mentally-unstable Martha of the rest of the novel. And why the tacked-on epilogue about the boring life of Ellen, the least-interesting of the characters? I suppose I need to get out my Bible and read the Book of Esther.

I gave this book 3 stars rather than 2 because I agree with others that Spark writes well. I just wish I had found this novel to be more interesting and either emotionally or intellectually engaging.
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Debra Spark's new novel, "Good for the Jews" is a retelling - in a modern setting - of the biblical story of Queen Esther saving of her Jewish brethren in Persia. Spark adds characters - and incidents - in her story, set in Madison, Wisconsin, in a two year period, beginning in 2005. The main characters - "Ellen" for "Esther", "Mose" for "Mordachai", "Alex" for "Aucharaus", "Hyman" for "Haman", and "Valerie" for "Vashti" - all correspond, in an updated way, to their biblical antecedents.

Spark's writing is tight, with not a wasted sentence or plot line. It's a story of people - good and bad - who face difficulties in daily life - broken marriages, broken hearts, discrimination in the workplace among other things - and how they face these crises. The ending, is in a way surprising, but not difficult to believe, given the societal problems existing in the US since 2001.

A beautifully written book. I'm looking forward to reading Spark's backlist.
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on February 6, 2012
Slow reading. Takes a while to put all the characters together. Once you do, the reading is much faster. Interesting.
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on October 13, 2009
I've been a fan of Spark's for a while, and this novel is an exceptional treat. I have always been fascinated and a little disturbed by the biblical story of Esther, and Spark's contemporary take on it is both surprising and immensely satisfying to read. Don't miss this book!
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on October 22, 2009
I've been a fan of Spark's my whole life! I'm her brother. But I've read all her books and this one truly is the best she's ever written. But if you think I'm biased, read the other stellar reviews here and also on Booklist [...]. [...]
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on November 13, 2009
A thoroughly engaging novel about characters you really care about. It's been a long time since I read a novel that I couldn't wait to get back to at the end of the day. It's got a bit of mystery, characters in sticky situations, workplace politics, the whole works. Loved it. Oh, and exquisite writing. --Monica Wood
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on November 9, 2009
I loved Good for the Jews! I consumed this novel greedily, delighted by its humor, the lovely writing, and, most especially, the humanity of its characters.
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on July 9, 2015
A lovely book which works so well on so many levels. First and foremost, it's excellent contemporary literature, involving an ensemble of characters whom you really come to feel for as the story develops. But there is a larger, deeper, more metaphorical edge to the book, and it is to author Debra Spark's credit that the sub-motif never overtakes the story. It's there for you to ponder or ignore, quietly and subtly enriching this engrossing tale of marriage collapse, adolescent coming of age, latent racism and relationships that span the generations. Highly recommended on your summer bucket list.
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