By Yael Hedaya
Metropolitan Books, 464 pages, $28.00.
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In Yael Hedaya’s world, relationships don’t often work out. “Housebroken,” her first book translated into English (Metropolitan Books, 2001), was chockfull of disastrous interactions — a man and woman try to save their broken union by adopting a stray dog; a young woman copes with her parents’ divorce by entering a fleeting and even more destructive affair — and the collection’s cumulative effect was a dim forecast for the happy union. Hedaya, a former journalist and humor columnist for Yediot Aharonot, seemed to revel in her characters’ dysfunction.
So it’s quite a surprise to find her taking such an optimistic point of view in her new and rewarding novel, “Accidents.” As the title suggests, things happen by chance in this book: car wrecks, coincidental meetings, unfortunate sexual encounters. Accidents occur all over the place and form the backdrop to a halting love affair between two jaded Tel Aviv writers, both of whom struggle to reconcile the past while grudgingly accepting permission for a contented (or at least conjoined) future. Without dwelling too much on the been-there-done-that, Hedaya offers an utterly realistic and charming portrait of two individuals taking the leap.
Yonatan Luria is a self-hating 50-something widower “doing his best” to raise his pre-adolescent daughter, Dana. Two years after his wife’s death in an auto accident, Yonatan’s career is on the skids. Having produced a string of tepidly received books, he finds himself unable to deal with his writer’s block as he is with his daughter’s emotional angst.
Conversely, Shira Klein is a wildly successful author. Her first book was a surprise best seller, and even though she dumped her cloying boyfriend just prior to the novel’s chart-topping success, she’s still “driven by restlessness,” an overwhelming loneliness, and a sense that she’s the type to “give and lose in silence.” Shira, whose emotionally detached father is slowly dying, is as in need of a happy home as Yonatan. When the two meet at an impromptu dinner party arranged by a mutual friend, their connection is immediate, “like two children showing each other cards from the same collection and discovering they both have the same ones.”
Hedaya does an expert job of detailing these two self-conscious cynics’ early courtship, likening their behavior to that of awkward teens uncomfortable with their bodies, inexperienced — or at least rusty — at sex, and constantly caught in the vortex of inner-anxiety and over-analysis of each other’s behavior. Yonatan and Shira’s early fumbles are painful, cringe-inducingly honest, and are hands down the most engaging parts of the book.
Dana, as expected, is the third wheel in this budding romance. Her place in this lovers’ triangle is a bit more complex. Dana, the outsider, is a little too chubby, a little too tongue tied and a little too earnest to run with the in crowd at school; and whether she’s enamored of Shira or simply with the idea of having a complete family, she falls in love with her “in a crushing and desperate way.” As the relationship between these three develops, so, too, do their narratives intertwine. What begins as a group of individual stories, inner monologues revisiting the past and their ghosts therein — Yonatan’s ever-supportive wife, his bitter father; Shira’s disappointed mother; her overly attentive ex-boyfriend — soon becomes one tangled narrative, with each character finishing the other’s thoughts in a tentative show of unity, although in the end neither Hedaya nor the characters themselves are quite sure it’s for real.
Much in the same way that such books as Norman Rush’s “Mating” attempted to tell the arc from one end of the relationship to the other, “Accidents” paints a vivid picture of two time-tested adults. But whereas Rush’s book indulges in the ugly (and, at least for the reader, dramatically satisfying) denouement, Hedaya’s story gets caught somewhere in the middle, a stunted plotline that extols neither the mundane aspects of everyday life nor in the inevitable flaws percolating just under the surface. Instead, the narrative seems to veer off course, almost becoming bored with itself and the downright ease of its main characters’ coupling. Yonatan must turn to the inevitability of his failing career, and Shira must grapple with the impending death of her father. And while Hedaya has exceptionally keen skills of observation — the scene in which Yonatan and Shira first have sex is dead on in its mingling of fear, grief and desire — it’s almost as if she’s trying too hard to be upbeat, betraying herself and her darker self to make sure that everything for Yonatan and Shira works out.
In the end, Hedaya’s great accomplishment is that she never reduces the story to schmaltz. It’s a love story, yes, and a relatively happy one at that, but one that avoids the facile, heavy-handed pitfalls of many fictional marriages (both those with and without the formal paperwork). There are no parental disapprovals, no unwanted pregnancies, no old lovers lurking in the wings. For Yonatan and Shira (and Dana, too), there is only possibility, and ultimately that hope is the book’s greatest reward.
Jenifer Berman is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her work appears in Bookforum, BOMB Magazine and The New York Times Book Review.