Oh, I liked this book. The main character, Leo Gursky – a large, old, lonely, Jewish, Polish immigrant living in New York City – reminded me of the protagonist in A Confederacy of Dunces. Alternate chapters focus on fourteen-year-old Alma, holding her mother and brother upright after the death of her father and, meanwhile, searching for her namesake. The novel bounces back and forth between Leo and Alma, slowly and remarkably bringing their stories together in a very satisfying way.
Some passages I underlined:
“No jew was safe. There were rumors of unfathomable things, and because we couldn’t fathom them we failed to believe them, until we had no choice and it was too late.” p. 8
“I started to write again. I did it for myself alone, not for anyone else, and that was the difference.” p. 9
“Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.” p. 11
“…she’d be there, looking out the window or into a glass of water as if there were a fish in it that only she could see.” p. 44
“Perhaps that is what it means to be a father – to teach your child to live without you. If so, no one was a greater father than I.” p. 164
While at a single’s event at a museum, Benjamin Ziskind steals a million-dollar Chagall painting that once hung in his parents’ living room. While this begins the story, be forewarned – this isn’t a fast-paced art theft novel. Instead, its a slow-moving, gentle story of Benjamin and his family. Through the book, you learn how their history intertwines with Marc Chagall. I picked this book up after noticing it in the bookstore of the Tenement Museum in NYC and seeing that Lev Grossman wrote a blurb for the back cover. Overall, the main story didn’t capture my attention, but this book did make me want to find out more about the history of Jews in Soviet Russia. Additionally, there is a small section at the end (Chapter 19) that is so well-written and thought-provoking, it made the whole book worth reading. The chapter could stand alone, and I don’t know for sure, but I imagine it was a short story at some point. It salvaged the book.
Some lines I underlined throughout the book:
“…from the days when he had been a child prodigy, before he had learned the horrid truth that there is no such think as an adult prodigy…” p. 44
“You are seduced by beauty, and you think if you can write a pretty sentence about something, then it doesn’t matter where the story goes or how it ends.” p. 84
“As he walked back up the narrow staircase to his own home, he wondered if it was even possible to have happiness in a story, when one was required to imagine both a beginning and an end.” p. 88
“One night when he was still a young man, the headmaster dreamed that he had died, and had arrived in the next world. When it was the headmaster’s turn to appear before the divine throne, the Holy One took him by the hand and brought him to a small door. The door opened, and the headmaster found himself in a luminous room filled with books: shelves and tables loaded with books, manuscripts in high stacks all over the floor. The headmaster looked around the secret library and smiled. He was sure this room was the place that had been reserved for him in paradise. But as he reached to take a volume off the shelf, the divine hand suddenly grabbed his shoulder and held him back. ‘These are all the books you were supposed to have written,’ the Holy One said. ‘Why didn’t you write them?'” p. 194