The Family Orchard
BY NOMI EVE
Alfred A. Knopf; 320 pages; $25
BY MARK SALZMAN
Alfred A. Knopf; 182 pages; $21
I was thrilled to hear that the first print run of Nomi Eve’s debut novel is an astonishingly confident 100,000 copies, since this can only mean that America’s most distinguished publisher is at last throwing its considerable weight behind a sadly underrated genre: the romance novel. How else to describe a book that, for all its literary pretensions, palpitates with sentences like “Theirs, they agreed, was an ancient elemental passion that must have existed, like sand, earth, and sky, long before either of them had been born”? The Family Orchard follows a Jerusalem-based clan, the Sephers, from their arrival in Palestine in the 1830s to the present; but for all the Levantine drag, the real spiritual homeland of this novel isn’t the Holy Land. It’s Cartland.
It’s easy to see why Knopf has timed the publication of this (as they say) “sprawling” multigenerational soap opera to coincide with the High Holy Days. After all, it’s about – or pretends to be about – Jews, and issues presumably of concern to Jewish readers: the grafting of European Jewry onto Palestinian soil, the interactions between family stories and national history. The latter, which is a particularly rich subject, seems to be of special concern to the author, who in a brief (and already distressingly pretentious) prefatory note signals her interest in the complex way in which family legends and history intertwine: “I believe that fiction is formed truth. I believe that history is a way of knowing all of this. I believe that legend is how we read between the lines.”
I believe it, too. Although I’m not so sure I’d want to sound like Cecil B. DeMille while saying it. One of the things that made me want to read this book in the first place was, in fact, the way in which the tantalizing interplay of legend and fact, mythmaking and truth, fiction and history seemed to haunt its very structure. Eve’s novel juxtaposes snippets of a terse family history, written by the narrator’s father, with the narrative itself, which is presented as an imaginative reconstruction of the father’s bare-bones history. In a further self-conscious blurring of the line between fact and fiction, the author teases us into thinking that the stories she tells us are, in fact, those of her own real-life family: Her narrator is also called Nomi Eve, and is married, like Eve, to a man named Jeremy, and also had a grandfather who was an orchard-keeper in Israel, and so forth. Finally, the author’s family name is Buch, which in German means what sepher does in Hebrew: “book.”
All this led me to believe that Eve’s book was going to be a serious work of fiction that explored the nature of both narrative and Jewish experience. The problem is that The Family Orchard has as much interest in Jewish history and Jewish concerns as Barbara Cartland’s 1971 Mitteleuropa masterwork, Stars in My Heart has in Austro-Hungarian Imperial politics. In the very first pages, the narrator’s distant ancestress Esther Sophie Goldner Herschell walks into a bakery and decides that the buns that the baker (“lithe and beautiful in a coltish, boyish way”) should be kneading are hers (he “would only enter into her ‘rear door’ “). From here on, it’s clear that the novel’s real interest lies in hormones, not Hebrews. Like the author of Genesis, whose lofty style she often apes ("My wife. You are very wet”), Eve is preoccupied with the begats. Rear-entry Esther begat mystery-solving Eliezer, who with his stepsister the beauteous Golda begat the shoplifting Avra, who begat tree-pruning Zohar, who begat wife-divorcing Eliezer, who begat book-writing Nomi. But unlike God, she’s not interested in much else. Despite the narrator’s poetically expressed assertion that “history tightropes toward family,” history barely puts in an appearance here. It takes a special talent to write a novel that claims to be interested in Jews and in Jewish-family and -cultural mythmaking in which the Holocaust – even if it was experienced differently by Palestinian Jews – is little more than an excuse to talk about the erotic escapades of an oversexed local “lady” known for her special “welcome” of arriving postwar refugees.
Eve’s narrative myopia, her inability to organize the discrete stories and legends of her narrator’s forebears into a coherent tale that’s actually about something bigger, is most evident in her failure to make anything interesting of the family orchard itself, a symbol that goes woefully untended. You keep thinking it’s going to represent something about life and continuity and “culture,” but it ends up being little more than a setting for a few episodes, never organically woven into – or should I say grafted onto? – the individual narratives; right down to the “Manual of Orchard Terms” at the end of the book, the orchard in The Family Orchard feels like an afterthought.
There are some wonderful things in this novel – a dreamy magical-realist episode about Zohar’s wife, a master seamstress who can weave emotions into dresses; a story about a little boy’s efforts to summon a golem that will, he thinks, revive the spirits of his dead uncle and deformed, hidden-away brother. But in the end, there’s little sense of an overarching tone, a coherent structural or thematic purpose to these episodes, other than the author’s desire to give some kind of story to each of the names that appear on the family-tree charts that open each new section.
I think something should be said about the embarrassingly awful prose here. I know that publishers and editors love to use the swoony word lyrical in describing novels, but maybe it’s time for an industry-wide moratorium on lyricism – a quality, it’s worth remembering, that is not synonymous with “gushy” or “schmaltzy,” as Eve seems to think. In its genuine form, lyricism achieves its resonant effects by means of a paring-down of language, not a piling-on. Sappho managed to be the greatest lyricist we’ve ever had in fewer words than Nomi Eve uses in her epilogue alone.
Even if you discount the many forced and artsy metaphors here – I particularly enjoyed the one in which the Yiddish language “like a mule, kicked and brayed itself off of the baker’s tongue” – the linguistic excess is wearying, when not downright incomprehensible. “Their faces were kindly, too, but their kindness was sticky, not insincere, but structurally damaged, as if having been exposed to too much heat or sun.” It’s not the heat; it’s humidity. The Family Orchard is clearly meant to be one of those “big” fall books that make you laugh, cry, and so forth, but I doubt that the tears – or is it the laughter? – were supposed to be inspired by the prose.
When I was growing up and my Orthodox grandparents were still alive and speaking beautiful, nuanced, un-mulish Yiddish, the worst thing you could say about an action was that it brought a shandah an di familye – shame to the family. This sticky, insincere, overheated book, shamelessly overhyped by its publisher, is a shandah on Knopf. Feh.
Readers interested in real lyricism, the bone-beautiful kind that arises from small things intensely considered, would do well to pick up Mark Salzman’s Lying Awake, which is the closest thing to an inverse of The Family Orchard you could imagine, and not just because it’s about Carmelite nuns. Salzman’s story has the simple yet hard-edged lineaments of something etched in rock: Sister John of the Cross, who’s given to ecstatic visions that in turn inspire the poems for which she is famous, starts getting terrible headaches, and learns that the cause of her headaches – and, alas, her visions – is a small brain tumor. I worried at first that this novel was almost too spare, that it wouldn’t be able to address the complex issue raised by what in high school you knew as the Flowers for Algernon dilemma, the terrifying thought that your you-ness was removable. But the concreteness and economy of Salzman’s writing, his eye and ear for tiny, resonant details (“Housework and locusts: theme music for summer tedium”) eventually yield their riches in a clear-eyed vision – not, perhaps, of what God means, but certainly of what it means to be a human being, of the superiority of spareness and genuineness to ecstatic blather. (Salzman eloquently tells you everything you need to know about the difference between the contemplative life, in which everything counts, and life in the “outside” world, with its vast waste of words and emotions, in an exchange between Sister John and her doctor: “Peace be with you, Doctor,” she says, meaning it. “Have a great day,” he absently replies.) After the removal of her tumor, life does indeed get more “dull” for Sister John, as her doctor predicts, but that’s this modest novel’s big point: The deepest satisfactions of the soul are small and achieved with difficulty, not grandiose and effected by hype. Lying Awake is, like The Family Orchard, a Knopf book; after reading both, you wish the publisher would send copies of Lying Awake to all its editors and authors – with the final, moving insight Hi-Lited: “I want to try working with what I’ve got instead of wishing I had something else.” Amen.