Sunday, January 4, 2015

First-Person Singular: Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl

Anita Diamant's newest novel, The Boston Girl, was published by Scribner on December 7. (Photo: Dominick Reuter)

Novels that take us back in time are a pleasure for a number of reasons. They provide window into worlds which are no less complicated than our own, albeit usually without internet and smart-phones. But the best of these novels are not about gimmicky and nostalgia-inflected descriptions of fashion and ‘quaint’ transportation. In the tradition of Wild Swans and Angela’s Ashes (both of which have notably autobiographical elements) the best invocations of the past are about characters and people. By slowly bringing the reader from the past into the present, such books make the present richer, inflecting how we think of the people around us with an awareness of the depths of history which each of us bear. Anita Diamant’s newest novel, The Boston Girl (Scribner Publishing, 2014), is just such a book—but it also stands out for its writing, sharp pace, and a few other quite remarkable features.  

Diamant is a prolific writer, perhaps most famous for The Red Tent (1997), a retelling of the story of the Biblical character Dinah which Lifetime adapted into a television mini-series last month. She has written extensively on Jewish topics, and not just in a fictional context (see for example The New Jewish Wedding and Living a Jewish Life), as well as becoming one of the foremost contemporary advocates for what she has referred to as ‘feminist Judaism’ and an inspiration for the on-going feminist re-interpretation of the Jewish tradition of mikveh (immersion). In that context, The Boston Girl reads slightly like a wish-fulfillment novel, but it is also one grounded in reality and history, and handled with an exquisitely light hand. 

Born to an immigrant family just after the turn of the century, Addie Baum—the novel's narrator and the titular "Boston Girl"—is a Jewish character from beginning to end, but unlike so many books that make a character's Jewishness an excuse to explain and describe Jewish traditions, Addie’s Jewishness just is. It crops up at moments when she has to make decisions about what food to eat, what clothes to wear or where she is going to live; it comes out in the prejudice that she encounters often unexpectedly lurking behind corners of her social and professional life. But, for the most part, it is simply a part of who she is and requires little comment. This might seem obvious, but it is all too rare in fiction to encounter Jews (and Muslims) whose primary concerns are the basics of living life—getting an education, getting a job, finding love and surviving heartbreak… characters who love chocolate or hate it, are conflicted about cutting their hair, and also as a matter of course are deeply (perhaps without a great deal of conscious reflection) committed to their tradition.

This is not to under-represent the Jewish content of The Boston Girl, which begins with a glimpse into what it meant to be Jewish in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century and ends with a preview of the possibilities that being Jewish contains at the end of the 20th/beginning of the 21st. The story of Addie Baum, the story that she tells to her own granddaughter, and the particular character and context of that young woman of whom she is so proud, is inextricable from their Jewishness. But it is rare, and precious, to find a book (or author) capable of taking that relationship to a tradition seriously and avoiding the trap of rendering characters one-dimensional as a result.

Past-to-present, “multi-generational” stories also tend to focus, for perhaps obvious reasons, on the family, providing what is effectively a genealogy of the main character and explanations for their quirks, decisions, perversions, dreams, and desires. Literary fiction is filled with a stunning assortment of the epically courageous and dysfunctional families that have created some of the greatest literary protagonists. The narrator’s family is certainly intriguing, filled with tragedy and dysfunctional as well as love and evolution. The relationship between Addie and her mother is clearly definitive, although it is her relationship with her father—burdened by fears, guilt and regret, trying to provide for a family and gradually finding greater and greater solace in religion—which is the more fascinating. But fundamentally, Diamant's novel is unique in that it is not really about how our families shape and define us; it is about how our friends do the same.

Addie is certainly molded and shaped by her family. But it is her friends—girls and women who run the spectrum of ethnicities, religions, and political outlooks—who are Addie’s foundation and springboard. (And perhaps it is notable that their diversity does not seem to have seriously homogenizing/assimilating effects on Addie herself).  Their differences plays off one another, and the women indeed grow through their interactions, including through genuinely serious conflicts and fights—they also demonstrate the particular power of female networks. There was one moment in the book that gave me pause: the account of an abortion. It was well-written and suitably moving, but I could not help but stumble over the fact that there are very few books about women in the period before Roe v. Wade that don't include some variation on this scene. By the end of my book, however, I came to see that my frustration with ‘abortion as trope’ revealed more about myself than the narrative—a result of my privilege, as a woman who was born and raised in a world with Planned Parenthood. It read to me like a trope because I could not imagine the world in which this was such an ever-present and recurring event. It is a testimony to Diamant’s writing, and to The Boston Girl, that I had to confront my assumptions and my privilege by the end of the book.

This is a masterful book by a contemporary master of literature. It weaves social, religious, and human themes in a way that few novels do, and Addie’s voice as our narrator is one of the most engaging and descriptive in recent memory.  When Addie reveals to her granddaughter things that she thinks will shock the younger women, she also shocks the reader—and that is confirmation of the skill and confidence with which Diamant has created, and invested readers in, a truly remarkable character

Read this book: not because it will always make you happy, but because it is, quite simply, beautiful.

The Boston Girl is available from Scribner in bookstores and as an ebook.

– Jessica L. Radin is a graduate student living and working in Toronto, where she teaches, works on her dissertation, and reads everything she can get her hands on.

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