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.