Monday, July 06, 2009

How I loved Sima!

I read Ilana Sanger-Ross’s appealing debut novel months ago. I gulped it down. And then, a while ago, I wrote up a little synopsis for a friend. But even the existence of that text was not enough to pull me back to my neglected blog and blogging friends—such were the pressures of spring and the Woolf Conference.

Sima’s Undergarments for Women is a delightful novel: easy to read and beautifully written. It stands in that lovely but underappreciated middle ground between literary fiction and pop and I liked it the better for that. The novel centers on Sima, a secular Jewish woman in her 50s who runs a small bra shop in the basement of her home in a neighborhood that has become ultra-orthodox. She grieves over her childlessness & that grief has poisoned her marriage. When a young Israeli girl, killing time while her boyfriend is in the army, comes to work with her, changes happen.

That’s what I loved about the novel: things start out bleak and sad, changes happen—they are unpredictable, but the arc of the story is toward happiness. And this happiness is hard won and interesting. Sima makes Timna into a kind of alter-ego: she envies her, mothers her, spies on her, lives through her. Sima is a flawed and wonderful heroine.

Meanwhile, the world of the bra shop in this conservative and closed community brings its own delights: there’s an element of cultural tourism here, to be sure. It’s interesting to read about the young wives and mothers, so constrained in their roles. It’s deeply familiar, too, to read the conversations women have with each other (and the private thoughts they don’t express) about their bodies, their hopes, sex, marriage, childbearing. A passage in which Sima watches young virgins try on sexy lingerie sticks with me: she knows they think this underwear is about to be a big part of a glamorous new life and she sees, more realistically, that they’ll marry, get pregnant, and return for a nursing bra in pretty short order. Somehow, Stanger-Ross makes that seem wry, not tragic.

I recommended this book to my mom & mother-in-law, both of whom loved it. It’s an easy book to love. It’s also is beautifully written—she is very sensitive and observant; some of her sentences are gorgeous. There are no missteps.

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