Thursday, September 15, 2005

Stephanie Kallos, Broken for You

Well, I finished it, I cried at the end, I enjoyed it, but Kallos’ Broken for You is not a good book. There is a lot—too much—that’s interesting in the book: it’s the story of an isolated, depressed Seattle heiress in her seventies who takes in a broken-hearted thirty-something as a boarder. This one decision, prompted by the advice of a skinny girl in a coffee shop, opens up the older woman’s life and brings her the joy and the random family and love that her life has lacked for decades. I loved this plot line and loved the character of the agoraphobic woman, surrounded by valuable things, opening up. I love the vision of the generous woman with a full-time house party. I long to throw my own.

Since this is a largely negative review of a bestseller from last year, I’m going to keep on going with some spoilers, so be forewarned.

I was less enamored of the story of a woman in her thirties who, even with a sexy man throwing himself at her, continues to pursue her alcoholic ex. Where I felt sympathetic with the withdrawn older woman who has lost a son and has a failed marriage, I felt impatient with the young woman. When the young woman is in the car accident—the moment, my mom tells me, she lost interest in the book—the plot falters significantly. The car accident is the novel’s turning point and that second act of the book is its weakest spot. The third act, in which the young woman transforms herself into an artist, while not as good as the beginning, is almost as good as the first.

There’s a real Seattle optimism to this book, an optimism that’s both heartening and suspicious. The plot ultimately hinges on a theme of forgiveness and tolerance that’s connected to the Holocaust. Having grown up with Night (and even, it must be said, The Painted Bird), I’m not sure how ready I am for this happier magic realist Holocaust book: I await Everything is Illuminated with hope & trepidation—I spent a couple memorable nights in college partying with Director Liev Schreiber. It turns out that the old woman’s valuable china collection came from her father’s opportunistic purchases of china from French Jews during WWII. The old woman’s guilt over this bounty has wrecked her marriage and her life until she hits upon a solution: since she has been unable to return the figurines and dishes to their rightful owners, she’ll break them. Breaking them turns out to be therapeutic to the young woman, who becomes a mosaic artist. Though Kallos writes that the art and its matter are controversial, that the artists’ own lack of Jewish ancestry is an issue, all the Jewish characters in the book are big-hearted, warm, loving, accepting folks. I like the idea that, as Kallos herself notes, the mosaics become a kind of atonement for Kristallnacht and it seems right and smart to be attentive to the idea that not all will agree. I do not like the depiction of all Jews as merry Tevye’s, affirming “L’Chaim” to the well-intentioned goys.


genevieve said...

Which last remark I think was a complaint levelled at Nicole Krauss's latest book some time ago. Perhaps it is a hard thing to get right, even from within that community. I've been reading reviews of Vikram Seth's latest about his Jewish aunt - sounds very interesting.

Anonymous said...

I think that maybe you missed the major theme of the book. The idea of forgiveness and tolerance and all that is involved with the Holocaust storyline is secondary to the idea of creating a surrogate family. No one in the book sets out to find people with whom to make a family, but over time they all essentially become a family. At the risk of sounding corny- it's about acceptance, acceptance of each other, acceptance of yourself, acceptance of your past and of your future.

Anonymous said...

This was my favorite novel. I am well-read and a mosaic artist and Jewish and a divorced mom who takes in borders to create some sense of community. So this book felt optimistic, uplifting as well as well-written with an intricate and creative plot and sub-plots.