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The Family Markowitz by Allegra Goodman

picture of book cover

Allegra Goodman was writing about dysfunctional Jewish families before it was cool. This 1996 novel opens with Rose Markowitz reflecting on her life, ultimately deciding to decree in her will that her fortune will go The Girls’ Orphanage in Israel. That’s after she sends away her second husband’s only child away while the husband lies on his deathbed. As the chapters progress, we meet Rose’s older son, Ed, a renowned and pretentious professor; and her dreamer son Henry, who moves Rose to California to be closer to him. But Henry soon departs for England, where, despite being gay, he meets and marries a woman named Susan. There are grandchildren with their own stores, an increasing meanness on Rose’s part, a LOT of time on Israel-Palestinian politics, and a Sedar and a wedding, natch.
Goodman is a beautiful writer, with descriptions of Henry being particularly poignant. Henry, in adopting a life with Susan focused on antiques and literature, finds a strange type of happiness. His sister-in-law, Sarah, reflects that “she had thought Henry lived beautifully before; she had been a little disappointed to hear of his marrying. It seemed like a capitulation too the everyday worlds. But Henry hasn’t given in at all. He has retreated into the more decorated nineteenth century.”
But much of it is slow, and Rose and Ed are both such awful people that you long for them to find a type of redemption, or at least connection with each other.  I fear they are what the goyim think of when they think of pretentious Jewish professors, or stifling Jewish mothers. Goodman, in the book flap, is described as a “kindler, gentler Philip Roth,” which manages to be an unholy trifecta of insulting, sexist and untrue. There’s a strain of real cruelty that exists in these characters, and the chapters feel more like short stores than a coherative narrative. It’s not difficult to read, and it’s well-written, just not something I enjoyed or would recommend. It feels so far apart from The Cookbook Collector, which I loved,  that it’s mostly an interesting exercise in how far an author can change or progress, depending on your point of view.