If I hadn’t read this book on a Kindle, I know what I would do with it. I’d get a knife and cut out the three brilliant stories and rebind them into a new volume I’d keep for a long time. I’d recycle the other five stories.
Two of the three wonderful stories were ones I’d read before, either in the New Yorker or anthologized. The first is the title story, which to me, is the best of the bunch: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank.” In this story, two couples bond, chafe and philosophize over a Florida kitchen table and pot filched from a teenage son, then rolled in a tampon wrapper. The two women grew up best friends before taking separate paths–one becoming fairly secular but for her obsession with the Holocaust, the other becoming Hasidic and moving to Israel. Told from the point of view of the first woman’s husband, the story is wry, hilarious and witty in its dialogue and observations. The changing allegiances between the four are well-mapped and the details–an image of a high Hasidic man rolling a slice of white bread into a ball and popping it in his mouth!–are singular. Though the end of the story finds the four of them wedged into a closet together playing the “Anne Frank”-game–who would or wouldn’t hide who in the event of a second Holocaust–it manages to avoid hokiness and instead is meaningful and terribly sad.
The last story in the collection, “Free Fruit for Young Widows,” is the one I’d read not once but a few times before. It makes sense that this story pops up everywhere–it’s structurally complex and narratively multi-layered (the last line, even, adds another strata of meaning) yet full of action and murder and gripping moral dilemmas. It’s a uniquely memorable story.
“Everything I Know About My Family on My Mother’s Side” is the third story that really grabbed me. It is organized into short, numbered sections and manages to recount what the title promises–interesting, all–while doing the meta-work of showing how a person’s understanding of his family changes over the years, both filling-out and destabilizing. Events long in the past morph and change, are revised, rewritten, erased and invented in their telling. There is the added layer of a love story, as well, and all this about a character named Nathan. A little po-mo, sure, but it works.
I was fairly ambivalent about two other stories, “Sister Hills,” a mythical, folklorical account of the establishment and evolution of a small Jewish settlement in Israel (started strong, grew uncomfortable, finished with what I found to be a very corny conceit) and “Camp Sundown,” about a summer camp director becoming complicit in a Holocaust-fixation-induced murder perpetrated by some of the elderly folks in his care. This story had charming, painful and true moments yet became something so overtly allegorical that I couldn’t take the actual narrative seriously.
Allegory is what killed the rest of the stories for me, too. Suffice it to say they were even more obvious than the instance of the camp director hysterically burning Holocaust-related books in front of the entire camp for inciting paranoia. Seeing so clearly what the writer is telegraphing just doesn’t make for a good read.
How my memory will revise this book is clear. I’ll remember the eight stories as: “What We Talk About…” repeated four times, “Free Fruit…” three, and “Everything I Know…” once. And I would happily read that book again.