This book was recommended to me by a library computer while I was searching for Dara Horn’s recent essay collection, the provocatively-titled People Love Dead Jews, as a similar book. Since it was in that very library, and the blurb made it sound right up my alley, I went to look for it and assumed I’d love it.
In 1947, while running late to a job interview, 25-year-old Eleanor Moskowitz’s taxi is rear-ended by another taxi in bottleneck traffic, caused by Pres. Truman’s visit to the city. Because Eleanor suffers an injury to her face, and because cops get involved after the cabbies start arguing, she’s unable to go to the interview.
However, the woman in the other taxi, Patricia Bellamy, invites Eleanor to her glamourous Park Avenue apartment to calm down. Patricia does have some belated misgivings after she hears Eleanor’s obviously Jewish surname, but feels it would be poor manners to rescind the invitation.
When Eleanor arrives at the apartment, she meets Patricia’s only child, 13-year-old Margaux, a polio survivor. Margaux is very understandably bitter, angry, and surly on account of her long illness and being left with a withered leg. But for some reason, she’s instantly drawn to Eleanor, and begs for Eleanor to become her tutor. Eleanor previously worked as a teacher, but resigned when the principal refused to punish a girl for plagiarism. She was also romantically involved with another teacher, and found it awkward to be around him after he started going out with the school’s third Jewish teacher.
Eleanor isn’t too sure about the prospect of being Margaux’s tutor, but ultimately agrees to do it. Prior to accepting the offer, she went to an unemployment agency and was advised by the woman who saw her, Rita Burns, to change her surname to something less obviously Jewish, like Moss or Morse, so her résumé wouldn’t be automatically thrown away. Miss Burns says she knows what she’s talking about, since her real name is Rachel Bernstein.
Because the Bellamys’ building is restricted, Eleanor indeed ends up pretending to have the surname Moss when she announces herself to the doorman. This charade continues when she joins the Bellamys at their summer home in Argyle, Connecticut.
And it’s in Argyle where all the trouble begins.
Patricia’s Bohemian playboy brother Tom arrives for a visit, and he and Eleanor feel an immediate attraction. For many compelling reasons, Patricia is quite alarmed to discover their romantic feelings, and even more upset when she discovers Eleanor was in Tom’s bed. Not only is Eleanor her employee and expected to set a good example for Margaux, but she’s also a good thirteen years younger than Tom and of a different religion and social class. Tom is also notorious for his string of broken hearts and endless affairs, one of which ended with the woman having an abortion.
Also angry is Patricia’s husband Wynn, whose many terrible qualities include antisemitism, sexual predation, drunkenness, classism, poor anger management, lack of success in his law firm, and hatred of modern art. He blames Eleanor for the increasing strain in his marriage, and will stop at nothing to let her know who’s boss and what he really thinks of her.
And when Wynn crosses that line, everyone’s lives are sent into even more of a tailspin.
Overall, I was really disappointed in this book. While Ms. Zeldis does a superb job of describing things like interior decoration, architecture, clothes, and Manhattan streetscapes of the era, the characters all seemed kind of flat and shallow. I never truly felt in anyone’s head, and the narration is rather telly instead of trusting readers to discern things for themselves.
This book also follows the annoying trend of alternating POV characters every other chapter, except for one time where two chapters in a row are in Patricia’s POV. Thus, many times the revelation or cliffhanger than ends a chapter isn’t followed up at all, or the resulting reactions and events are relayed later instead of shown as they actually happen. God forbid you use third-person omniscient in a book with more than one main character!
I also wished there’d been more development of Eleanor’s relationship with Margaux and their lessons. And without giving anything away, there’s a really convenient deus ex machina plot development for one of the storylines. I agree with reviewers who feel this is a YA book that just happens to have adult characters.
I was hoping for a more thorough, engrossing exploration of the institutionalized, systemic antisemitism which continued even after the Shoah, not just alternatingly heavy-handed and minor mentions every so often. Eleanor is very secular and assimilated, with almost no connection to either religious or cultural aspects of Judaism. It feels so out of character when she visits a mikvah, not to mention contrary to norms of halacha (Jewish law).
Obviously, antisemites don’t care how religious or secular someone is, but Eleanor never demonstrates a strong or believable Jewish identity. The distinction between her and the Bellamys feels more believably based on class instead of religion.
Also, her relationship with Tom and their supposed chemistry never felt believable to me, coupled with how rare and scandalous interdating and intermarriage were in that era. Eleanor only thinks about how she’ll be excluded from Tom’s Gentile world, not about things like how they’d raise potential kids.
The treatment of premarital sex also felt a bit unrealistic and ahistorical. Outside of really Bohemian types, which Eleanor isn’t depicted as, it was generally only done by couples planning to marry anyway in this era. Not couples only thinking of a good time and unsure of their relationship’s future.
And did I mention the book just kind of ends in media res?