How many British Jews in When We Were Bad does it take to screw in a light bulb? Well, one is too busy fretting about the upcoming publication of his book and its effect on his marriage; another is preoccupied with a rebellious adolescent sexual re-awakening; a third is too caught between family responsibility and a spiritual emptiness to notice. The mother, usually the butt of these jokes (How many Jews? None—sigh—“I’ll just sit here in the dark.”), pulls out the ladder and does it herself, with an all-too-real possibility of having a breakdown in the process. After all, if the gefilte fish burns while she’s fixing the electronics, Passover won’t be perfect.
This is, more or less, the current state of things in the Ruben household. Claudia, the rabbi/homemaker/author/spiritual leader/wife and socialite extraordinaire, struggles to hold her “doomed to happiness” family together in the wake of eldest and most perfect son Leo’s abandoning his fiancé at the altar for another woman, followed by his return home in shame. Frances, meanwhile, is married to a man with children from another marriage who hate her. Norman, Claudia’s husband and an author in his own right, is nothing less than a quiet, submissive Mr. Cellophane in the face of his dauntingly attractive and intimidating wife. Claudia is experiencing troubles of her own, as the family is fast running out of money—she is also housing her two younger children who are unable to hold jobs, though in classic mother’s-rose-colored-glasses syndrome she makes endless excuses for this. The future of the family rests on the success of her upcoming book, and nothing—nothing—is allowed to disrupt the family’s image in the process.
The Rubins hail from the upper crust of British society, and act like it, too. There are no “oy gevalts” or other traditional Brooklyn Jew stereotypes here, which may be a welcome change for the American reader. In fact there is very little of anything American in this Jewishness; were it not for Claudia the rabbi, the Rubins could easily pass for Anglican. Jews like myself may enjoy this change of pace, as it gives a completely different portrait of the eternal Jewish problem of how to live in a gentile world. Not to say that this is a novel about what it means to be a British Jew—this is far less heavy-handed. Instead, it highlights Mendelson’s strong point in this work: the ability to say little about background and let the background speak for itself.
And it is the background, the little lines which permeate the text, that speak the most. In a jarring present tense, When We Were Bad awkwardness, struggle, and humor—the trinity of the Jewish milieu, perhaps—with great ease. This translates into a logical and understandable flow of characters from the beginning to the end. All the while, we are amused by Mendelson’s use of language and the comic narrative—like any piece of Jewish wit, this knows how to make you laugh.
But there are also two significant failings that make this, on the whole, only a better than average read. First and more importantly, it was difficult during reading to make the story stick; that is, to make it matter. Some of the characters are at best only likable, and while they aren’t difficult to relate to, there is little reason to. The stories are realistic enough, but the drama isn’t compelling. Leo’s sexual renaissance and Norman’s fears of hurting his wife are hardly cheap, but they don’t do much either. While the language invites the reader in, the story sits flat on the page.
I was also troubled by the abrupt beginning of the story. We move right into the plot and keep moving, as if we missed the introduction/exposition chapters or Mendelson expects us to pick up the whole of the characters from a few lines (and if this is so, then they are too flat). Histories aren’t really mentioned, something which may have been useful to gain a greater insight into the family and its individuals. Greater reference to their lives outside the immediate plot would also form a greater bond between reader and character; in its absence, the characters fail to stick to us because we cannot see them as truly real people, despite their realism. We care for characters in the same manner that we care for people—we’ve gotten to know them, we can place their actions in the context of their lives, and we appreciate them for who the are. Mendelson succeeds with this last part, but misses the first two.
I first started reading this book because I was in a bad mood and wanted something light to make me feel better. After reading the first few chapters, I did. Now I’m in a better mood and reading my next book for review, and When We Were Bad has passed by. Non-stick.