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Clara Mondschein's Melancholia Hardcover – September 1, 2002
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This month's Book With Buzz: "Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
From the bestselling author of Everything I Never Told You, a riveting novel that traces the intertwined fates of the picture - perfect Richardson family and the enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives. See more
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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 nave, 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.
Top customer reviews
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. Deborah narrates the more recent events, in particular the family's life in New York and suburban New Jersey, and their visit to Madrid one recent summer, where she befriends an Irish alcoholic, a poet three times her senior, with whom she spends quite a bit of time.
These two narratives, in alternating chapters, make up the structure of the novel. The point about structure that is of importance here is that Deborah's narrative, and what she has to say about her mother, is the main story, and Ruth's recollection of the past and her spending time at the bedside of a dying man is the B story. If Raeff were to tell the story in a linear way, as is recommended to the first time novelist, she should not have started the B story until after the opening and maybe about a quarter into the book. But in an overt rearrangement of the structure, the novel begins with the B story, where Ruth meets Tommy and at his behest starts telling him about her youthful love and aborted pregnancy, and her subsequent introduction to her future husband, Karl, who turned out to be gay. There are other structural shifts in this novel, a reassuring sign that the initial supplanting of story A with story B is the result of patient deliberation, and that the author has used quite adeptly her innate knowledge of form to mold her story. This with her sporadic notes on music and art, sprinkled throughout, creates that warm and fuzzy feeling that you get when you are in the hands of a competent storyteller.
I haven't come this far not to mention a minor letdown. Ruth Mondschein's companionship with the camp's commandant, as unconventional and interesting as it sounds in retrospect, is promising at first but ultimately disappoints. It disappoints because we don't see her struggle to push him away, but push him away she does without any satisfying explanation. Judging by other convincing and viable subplots in the novel, (Deborah's experimental indiscretion with a female artist, her friendship with the Irish poet) the simple lack of curiosity in Ruth's relationship with the camp master is uncharacteristic at best.
Although story A and story B are connected by three generations of women, and the connection is ever so tenuous, the only constant in both stories is Clara, who is a part of story A as an adult, and story B as an infant. But we never see her as a part of both stories concurrently. To be sure, there is plenty of talk about her, but that's hardly adequate if we are to make sense of Carla's illness and to care about her predicament. The fact that the two stories intersect so infrequently renders their connection weak, and therefore hurts the story. This problem compounds in the last chapter where both narrators surrender the helm to an omniscient narrator who was absent throughout the novel up to that point.
Where did she come from, all of a sudden? This is most baffling since the first person singular was doing just fine in creating the intimacy and immediacy the narration required, qualities that are most needed at the highest level of concentration in the final scene. What the reader gets instead is a stepping back of sorts, a contrived distance, right where the opposite is needed.
The minor shortcomings aside, I give this novel 5 stars and congratulate the author for a first rate novel. I am looking forward to reading her upcoming books.
but this book just pulled me in and i was unable to put it down. i enjoyed both the characters, the compassion and the quirkiness.
a superb read.
“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.