This may seem hard for American readers to believe, but we British Jews rarely get to see ourselves reflected in contemporary fiction. While you’ve all spent the past several decades fairly swimming in successful American Jewish fiction — beginning in 1959 with Philip Roth’s debut and lasting right until this year, which has seen works by Michael Chabon, Nathan Englander, Shalom Auslander and more — we over here in the Mother Country have not enjoyed anything of the sort. It may be our own fault for “keeping our heads down,” or it may be that publishers just don’t believe that British non-Jews want to read about us. Most likely it is both. But whatever the reason, the fact is that we lack a great literary novel about mainstream Jews in modern Britain.
Enter Charlotte Mendelson. She has just been named one of Waterstone’s top 25 writers for the future, and though her second novel, “Daughters of Jerusalem” (2003), won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award, her new novel, “When We Were Bad,” is making a lot more noise than either of her two previous books. And the noise is warranted.
The London-set novel begins with a daring escape. Leo Rubin bails out of his own wedding. A shande enough, but if your mother is a famous rabbi and her entire congregation is looking on, then the breach is even more scandalous, the aftershock more profound. In this exuberantly brilliant book by one of Britain’s most exciting novelists, Leo’s defection is the cataclysm that sparks this “perfect” family’s descent into crisis.
For Claudia Rubin — rabbi, moral commentator, celebrity sage — perfection is her life’s work. To her family and her community, Claudia is not just a matriarch, she is a giantess.
In her formidable shadow are four adult offspring who seem locked into the roles they occupied as children. Spoiled and slothful, Simeon and Emily — Claudia’s two younger children — still live at home, while Leo and Frances, the elder two, have achieved only surface-level emancipation. Leo is a barrister, and Frances is a literary agent with a newborn baby and two little stepdaughters, but neither Frances nor Leo is functioning as a full-fledged adult. These two may be in their 30s, but they are still the synagogue’s children, pressed into the taxonomy not just of the family but also of the whole community — the cheek squeezers and head patters who have watched them grow up.
“Conservative” Leo is in love with the wife of Claudia’s deputy rabbi and is in the throes of the rampaging sexual awakening of a teenager. “Sensible” Frances is wound tight, increasingly overwhelmed by postnatal depression and an obsession with her sister’s cross-dressing girlfriend.
Even Claudia’s husband, Norman, is up to something that threatens to eclipse everything Claudia has worked for. The stage is set for a spectacular implosion, and the novel careers toward it from the moment that Leo bolts from the chupah.
The triumph of the novel is Claudia — charismatic, domineering, manipulative, courageous, yet also isolated and fearful, a fact belied by her superhuman public image. It’s the image she projects to everyone, her family most of all, and she never wavers from it. She has a secret of her own, however — potentially far more terrible than any of the others’ — and this is the beating heart of the book.
In this grand dame of Liberal Jewry, Mendelson could have created a monster, but she goes nowhere near either the caricature of an overbearing Jewish mother or that of a smug celebrity pundit. Instead she has rendered an absolutely believable human being, a complex constellation of characteristics that cohere into someone who it becomes increasingly hard to imagine doesn’t actually exist.
Indeed, the world of the Rubins is mercifully free of any of the stock characters that run amok in so many fictional Jewish families; yet at the same time, it’s a world that feels familiar and absolutely authentic. Every detail is precisely observed, down to the color of the hand towels in the Rubin bathroom. The prose is drum tight — as if every image and every word has been interviewed multiple times for the position — but it’s also very funny. Jonathan, Frances’s tiresomely menschy husband, gets some of the best lines, as does Norman, who would have to be played by Jim Broadbent if the novel ever transfers to the screen.
And thus, British Jewry has finally gotten its own sprawling Jewish family novel. More delightfully, like the best fiction, it is universal: Mendelson may have nailed our English particularities, but in her North London milieu, American readers will undoubtedly recognize their own familial and communal lives.
Nicole Taylor is a London-based writer.