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My first novel, “Compromising Positions,” was a whodunit. The protagonist was a Long Island Jewish housewife who turns private investigator. But she was Jewish the way I was, lighting Sabbath candles but envying her Protestant and Catholic friends’ December decorating options. I couldn’t have written a novel in the Harry Kemelman/Faye Kellerman tradition any more than I could a G.K. Chesterton mystery.
Still, I was never able to go the Edna Ferber route. I started out as “Jewish… whatever that means.” As time passed, I became a more committed Jew and a somewhat more knowledgeable one. But there’s so much to learn: the literature, the liturgy, the law, the traditions. You need more than a lifetime, and it’s even more daunting when you start kindergarten in your mid-20s. After my first novel, I began writing about assimilated characters seeking Jewishness in the secular world, whether in the OSS during World War II (“Shining Through”) or in the world of militia crazies in Wyoming (“Red, White and Blue”).
I’ve gone one step farther in my 13th novel, “Goldberg Variations.” My primary character is a chic, witty and profoundly nasty tycoon. She has a kingdom to bequeath to one of her three grandchildren, but she’s alienated them all. The book is a comic inversion of “King Lear”; none of Gloria Goldberg-turned-Garrison’s grandchildren want her kingdom. I decided to raise the possibility of a reconciliation after years of distance, yet I wasn’t sure if Gloria wanted or was capable of an apology. But as part of the story, I needed to have the Goldbergs in the book, three Jews and a Catholic, find a path they might take to return to each other.
I recalled a really good sermon I’d heard a couple of Rosh Hashanahs earlier, about teshuvah, about how, besides atoning to God for whatever wrongs you’ve committed, you also need to square things with the people you’ve hurt. I decided not to just use it metaphorically but to write about it. The more research I did, the richer the possibilities became for my characters. What I’d thought about in only the most casual way had been explored and debated for centuries. Who knew?
Now I do. For those of us who come late to the game, it pays to play catch-up. We come from a culture of ideas and conflict, ethical arguments and moral choices. What we are is the very stuff of fiction.
Susan Isaacs’s latest novel is “Goldberg Variations” (Simon & Schuster, 2012).