I have a friend who’s Indian, but who hates reading Jhumpa Lahiri and Monica Ali, women who are celebrated for writing about the lives of the Indian and Bengali immigrants. “It’s all spices and saris,” my friend complained to me once. I happen to disagree–I think Lahiri is the finest writer of our time–but I can see how my friend might find the writing about things she’s familiar with to be overdone or borderline fetishizing. And it turns out I feel the same way about Israel.
The problem with non-Israeli written novels about Israel is that they are too in awe of the land and its people. It’s not spices and saris, it’s the hot desert wind, and the mysterious Hasidic men and women in their wool coats and long skirts. These novels approach the land with mouth slightly agape. You can feel them thinking, “God, this is just so intense.” And, of course, Israel is intense. The landscape is beautiful, the political situation is terrifying, the people are pushy. But all of that is cliché at this point, and a good writer needs to be able to acknowledge all of that without getting caught up in it to an extent that is distracting to the reader.
Unfortunately, Joan Leegant’s novel, Wherever You Go falls squarely into this trap. It’s a book that follows three American characters through their adventures in Israel, and in New York. New York is crowded and hot and comprised entirely of drug addicts, overbearing Jewish mothers, and religious Jews. Israel is full of crazy, bloodthirsty settlers, romantic Israeli men, and security forces who are overly paranoid.
The three main characters are not at all likable. Yona has come to Israel to see her sister, Dena, who she hasn’t spoken to in a decade because the last time she was in Israel Yona slept with Dena’s then-boyfriend. Since then, Yona has been sleeping with a variety of married men, and is hoping to break the cycle. I suppose we might feel bad for her, but mostly she seems like the kind of person whose drama I would do just about anything to avoid.
Then there’s Aaron Blinder, a college dropout who followed a girl to Israel, was subsequently dropped by the girl, and gets swept up in a group of completely moronic settlers who seem to do nothing but talk about how important it is to do what they do, and drink warm orange soda. His father writes famous Holocaust novels. Literally the only likable thing about this kid is his affection for animal husbandry.
Finally, there’s Mark Greenglass, a yeshiva teacher who has been living in Jerusalem for a decade but has somehow lost faith, and is back in New York teaching at an American seminary, and reconnecting with his drug addicted ex-girlfriend. His family is horrible, he is completely spineless, and somehow I just wanted him to grow up. He’s supposed to be in his thirties, but he reads as a teenager.
You know the drill–the stories start out completely separate but eventually come together. What’s interesting about this book is that while I could not stand any of the characters in the first 2/3 of the book, I did still find them somewhat compelling, and Part 3 (which starts on page 232 of a 253 page book) was incredibly well done. The characters all become people I might actually want to have a conversation with.
In a way, I find that to be the most disturbing thing about this book. We have three unlikable characters, all of whom have been making a long series of bad decisions and what’s the thing that makes them into likable people? A crisis in Israel. It’s kind of the ultimate ‘go-to-Israel-to-solve-your-problems’ book, and that makes me crazy. Israel is not a magical land of problem solving. In fact, anyone who has read a newpaper in the last fifty years can tell you that it’s in fact the exact opposite.
Some people do ‘find themselves’ in Israel (though I can’t tell you exactly what that means). But the (probably unintentional) message of this book is that causing a terrorist attack might actually be the best way to bring people together in Israel, and that is a completely warped view of, well, everything, as far as I can tell.
And if I have to read one more sentence about the hot desert wind, I am going to scream.