Tuesday, January 7, 2020

book review

On Division by Goldie Goldbloom (Farrar Straus Giroux)

So the regional Jewish community has one of those annual programs whereby they encourage everybody to read the same book so that they can talk about it. This novel is this year's book, and my library committee was asked specifically to read it so that we can brainstorm a program idea around it.

The brainstorming session is yet to come, but the reactions, to the book as a novel, from three of us who've read it is so negative that a fourth person decided not to bother reading it. This is, in fact, just the kind of novel that made me so detest mainstream literature when I was in school. A blurb compares it to Mrs. Bridge, which was one of the books I read in school which I found so horrible, and yes it's pretty much like that: author wants to depict a character who finds her life devoid of meaning, and does so by example, by penning a novel devoid of meaning.

"Division" is, I gathered and eventually confirmed from a map, a street in Williamsburg, Queens, the district of NYC where the Chasidim flock. It's hardly mentioned in the book. The central and (almost) only viewpoint character is Surie, a Chasidic grandmother. She's 57, she's been married for 40 years, she's had 10 children and uncounted grandchildren, but her youngest child is now 13, so she's perplexed to find herself pregnant again. With twins. She spends almost the whole book pregnant, and not telling her husband, and her husband not noticing (apparently she's fat, as well as always draped in heavy garments, but really?), and her midwife urging her to tell her husband, and her wondering why she doesn't: she finds him a good man, kind to her, and they've always been close. It just goes on and on and on like that. The book starts out depicting the community, but as it increasingly centers on Surie's personal situation it becomes increasingly solipsistic and feverish.

Eventually Surie decides to tell her husband at the incredibly inappropriate moment that he's sitting shiva for his mother, but he's not wearing his hearing aid so he doesn't hear a word she's saying. Then at the end the babies are born - stillborn, though by this point the viewpoint is so hallucinatory I can't ignore hints that she might have killed them because she can't undertake mothering infants at her age. Then her husband finds out she'd been pregnant, and he asks, "Why didn't you trust me?" And she says, "I can't understand myself."

Yeah, well, neither can I, and neither, I suspect, can the author. Problems descend on Surie throughout the book, some of her own making, but overall they give the impression there's a giant thumb pressing down on her. But it's not God's, as the Chasidim might believe. It's the author's.

The Chasidic community is depicted less as embracing, which is its intent, than as suffocating and isolating. This is weird from an author who's a Chasid herself. And it becomes less and less real or believable as it goes on. I was astonished that, in a community of observant Jews, the spectacle of an unexpectedly pregnant 57-year-old fails to generate even one reference to the matriarch Sarah until Surie goes into labor, and even then it's only passing. That increases the impression that the story is solipsistic and not about the Jewish community at all.

This book is farkakt.


  1. The author also has a geography problem if she put Williamsburg in Queens. It is in Brooklyn.

    1. I don't remember what the book says, if anything at all. For a book with a street name in the title, it's remarkably uninformative about geography.

  2. Ah. I figured you got "Williamsburg, Queens" from the author

    1. I might have gotten it from the author; I don't know. I don't remember what the book says, if anything at all. For a book with a street name in the title, it's remarkably uninformative about geography.