Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book Review: "Tell Me How This Ends Well" by David Samuel Levinson

I'm a sucker for a novel about family dysfunction, but a novel about dysfunction that takes place during the Jewish holidays? Sign me up!

It's 2022 and while there isn't quite dystopia, the world is in upheaval: Israel has been dissolved, and all Israeli citizens have been dispersed across the world. And to make matters worse, the U.S. is roiled by anti-Semitism, with random attacks and drive-by shootings harming Jews across the country.

In the midst of this maelstrom, the Jacobson family is gathering to celebrate Passover at the home of oldest son Mo, an actor who was best known for a reality show which featured his wife and five sons, until criticism and threats from anti-Jewish viewers led to the show's demise.

Roz, the family matriarch, is dying, and her three children recognize this will probably be their last holiday as a family. Of course, that means they must spend time with their father, Julian, whose default position has always been to be emotionally and verbally abusive to his wife and children. Daughter Edith (aka Thistle), unfairly accused of sexually harassing a student in one of her classes at Emory University, has always tried to play peacemaker between her siblings and her father. Youngest son Jacob, who fled first across the country and then across the world to get away from his father, has returned after a number of years, bringing Dietrich, his German boyfriend.

"...[Jacob] had thought he'd come to terms with and healed from the worst of his dad's treachery, all those years of unwarranted hostility, by finding Diet and moving to Berlin. Unfortunately, he'd begun to realize that he'd unwittingly managed to smuggle the tyranny of his dad in through customs with him. Pieces of him, at least, and the worst pieces at that."

Jacob and Mo have hatched a plan to make their mother's last days more enjoyable, but they need Edith's buy-in. Edith wants to hate her father for his years of passive-aggressive behavior, but on the flip side, he always treated her as if she was his favorite. But the more she thinks about it, and the more she remembers, she realizes her father might not have been the prince she once thought. However, the siblings are thrown by the fact that after all these years, he suddenly dotes on their mother more, and their mother actually seems happy. Can this be, or are they all waiting for the next shoe to drop?

Tell Me How This Ends Well is a well-written, thought-provoking book which often seems as if it's not sure what it is supposed to be. At times it's a chronicle of severe family and personal dysfunction, as not one of these characters isn't significantly flawed. Other times it tries to provide social commentary on anti-Semitism and the return of worldwide hatred of Jews, and still other times, the book tries to be a wacky crime caper.

I think the book succeeds best when it focuses on the Jacobsons themselves. For the most part, these characters aren't really likable—Jacob is the most sympathetic, and even he is a bit of a mess. But David Samuel Levinson doesn't provide any shading for Julian's character, so every time he appears in the narrative, it made me bristle to the point that I couldn't stand reading those pages. I realize that was supposed to make him unsympathetic, but he was virtually disgusting, and I kept waiting to understand the reasons.

I didn't believe that the anti-Semitism piece always worked well. It was an interesting plot thread, but in places it became almost outlandish. But the kicker was that in the world Levinson created, apparently everyone can tell who is Jewish simply by looking at them, and seeing a Jewish person made most non-Jews want to throw racial epithets, if not incite violence.

As the holidays draw closer, Tell Me How This Ends Well is an interesting exploration of a family that both loves and dislikes each other. At times the parts of the family are greater than the sum, but the Jacobsons are can't-look-but-can't-look-away fascinating, and if nothing else, they'll make you realize your own family isn't so bad.

NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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