Sunday Jews, by Hortense Calisher is quite the story. It is somewhat disjointed and can be confusing, but if you do persevere, it might be rewarding in some facet.
I normally put a book down if I somewhat feel like giving up on it. But, something told me that this book would turn out to be one I would gain something from. And, I did.
I suppose the emotional ups and downs and disjointedness, and the ride the reader is taken on, is in part due to the fact that Calisher tries to intentionally evoke emotions within the reader. I think she deliberately chose this format to bring insight into the actual familial dynamics of every day individuals within a family unit. There is no strict mode of daily interactions within any relationship, and this presentation is strong in depicting that. Every family has their moments, their tragedies and happy events, their flaws and their strengths. This family is no different.
There was a lot to like about this book, and by the same token, there was a lot to dislike. The familial relationships, the interactions, or lack of interactions, the dynamics of the characters, and the aspects of manipulation and religious identity evoke the roller coaster ride of reader’s emotions. This is much like the constant feelings that actual family members have, one minute you love a family member, the next you might possibly dislike them, yet still love them, and there are those who are in a continuing love-hate relationship with a family member.
I won’t go into specific detail, as the book is almost 700 pages long, and I would fill the lines of this post with a huge amount of content. Suffice it to say that, aside from Zipporah and Peter, the novel includes their son, Charles, striving to become a supreme court judge. There is also Nell, whose children have been fathered by different men, an artist named Zack, and Erika who is an art expert. There is also an almost-agnostic, rabbi grandson, who eventually ends up searching for a missing individual. From these characters, Sunday Jews is born.
Zipporah-Zoe is the mother of this clan of individuals so seemingly opposite, that in the end, they are more alike than they think. She was born from wealth, in Boston, Massachusetts. She is a social anthropologist. Her husband, Peter Duffy teaches philosophy in New York. She is Jewish, he is Catholic. Peter eventually dies, and Zipporah becomes a widow, who eventually takes a lover. Zipporah was fairly predictable until certain events began to unfold in the story line.
She has always been a keeper and sender of cards. Cards tell the story of her life, and the lives of those in her family, and her circle of friends.
It is a novel that is a study on family dynamics, interactions both positive and negative, and some in between. The characters are fairly believable, and not over-hyped. Their inadequacies are bared in a forthright manner, not coated over or syrupy, with all of the trials and tribulations an ordinary family endures. Some I liked, some I didn’t. They could be your neighbors, or your own family members.
Sunday Jews is a true family saga, with a Catholic patriarch and a Jewish matriarch ruling over a family that is seemingly discontented. From early on in her marriage, through death and familial discontentment, and through Zipporah’s senior years, the story unfolds. The reader is given vivid word paintings of each of the family member’s lives, and how they choose to live their individual lives, guided by Zipporah and Peter. The writing is often wordy, and doesn’t always flow smoothly. But, isn’t that much the way life actually is?
Would I recommend Sunday Jews, by Hortense Calisher? Yes, for the psychological study on the family unit. There are a lot of comparisons and contrasts, a lot of what seems to be many an oxymoron, but, the study on the familial dynamics is the glue that held me throughout the pages.
January 25, 2012 – 1 Sh’vat, 5772