The 10 interrelated stories that make up Ehud Havazelet's Like Never Before
revolve around one big, if not invariably happy, family. The author introduces us to the Birnbaum clan--Max and Ruth, and their children, David and Rachel--as well as an assortment of the people they love and hate and date and marry and divorce. Yet the central focus in this sprawl of relationships is that between father and son. Theirs is also the most troubled connection. Max is an immigrant, a true if sometimes desperate believer, while David, even as a youth, is "aggrieved, put upon, a boy who carries anger like a stone in his pocket to caress." Growing up in Queens in the 1960s, the rapidly assimilating David rebels against the heritage Max has transported so carefully from the Old World. Yet David's defiance brings him little joy. "David," Rachel says, "was a boy constantly on the edge, of laughter, of panic, of some unaccountable act of friendship or some meanness that would leave you stunned."
David is unsparingly drawn and quite miraculously lovable. However, all of the central figures are just as deeply realized--and Havazelet's frequently entertaining, frequently agonizing skill at presenting each as an alarming composite of beauty and ugliness gives this intensely realistic work what Annie Dillard once called a "broad and sanctifying vision." Near the end of her life, Ruth Birnbaum muses unhappily that "despite everyone's good intentions ... love hurts more than it heals." Havazelet's gift is to let us feel both how right and how wrong she is. --Daniel Hintzsche
From Publishers Weekly
"Any hardship in this world is easier to bear than a disappointing child," thinks Max Birnbaum, a character in the 10 interlinked stories that make up Havazelet's dazzlingly insightful and emotionally resonant second book, after the praised What Is It Then Between Us? The pain that parents and children cause each other is the theme that shadows three generations. Max is an old man when he makes his observation about the hardship of raising children who disappoint, and he should know, having retired from an undistinguished teaching career that disappointed his father, a famous and beloved rabbi, and having also witnessed the downward trajectory of his own son, David. It is David's story, in fact, that forms the gripping center of these poignant chronicles. After a difficult youth, David is a brilliant, rising but self-absorbed architect who loses his job, his marriage, his self-confidence and his future in one cataclysmic day. Havazelet brilliantly probes the sources of David's angst, from his abrasive, resentful, irascible personality to the stress of being caught between the Orthodox Jewish culture of his forebears and the lure of assimilation in the 1960s. One of the many jolts of surprise in these narratives is Havazelet's candid depiction of the offspring of strict Orthodox families succumbing to the lures of drugs, alcohol, shoplifting and promiscuous sex. Hardly pious yeshiva students, they behave like aspiring juvenile delinquents. The Birnbaum women, too, are caught in the crucible of cultural change. Ruth, Max's wife; Rachel, their daughter, and pious cousin Leah make their own accommodations to life's disappointments. The moods in these stories range from broadly comedic (echoes of Malamud) to nightmarishly tragic; each contains small detonations of surprise that turn commonplace events into milestones of loss, bitterness or tentative healing. Common to all of them is the elegant simplicity of Havazelet's prose, the grace and precision with which he captures the currents of love, misunderstanding, anger and yearning that reflect complex interior lives. Yet Havazelet imbues his work with the vitality of fully engaged, risk-taking characters and the tenderness of his compassionate observation. In his hands, this kaleidoscope of alternating narrators and shifted chronologies coalesces into a haunting family portrait. West Coast author tour.
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