Two books bare the pain of families grappling with crises

Sometimes we turn to literature to escape life’s difficulties, and sometimes we turn to literature to inhabit them more fully. The following two books, both highly recommended, represent the latter case.

Judith Frank’s novel “All I Love and Know” follows Daniel Rosen and Matt Greene, a young couple who have adjusted to a tranquil domestic life together in Northampton, Mass., away from the excitement of Matt’s former lifestyle of New York dance clubs and parties. But everything will change when they learn that Daniel’s twin brother Joel and sister-in-law Ilana have been killed in a terror attack in Jerusalem.

Daniel and Matt travel to Jerusalem for the funeral. On top of the grief all are experiencing, there is the question of who will raise Gal and Noam, the two young children Joel and Ilana have left behind. The grandparents on both sides are eager to assume guardianship, but it turns out that Joel and Ilana had composed a will stating that their kids should live with Daniel and Matt if such a situation arises.

The narrative shifts in perspective among several characters, and one of Frank’s skills is to elicit great sympathy for all of them, even when they are displaying poor behavior. There is, for example, no pleasure in rooting against the grandparents during the custody battle. Ilana’s parents are both Holocaust survivors, and the prospect of being separated from their grandchildren, now that their only child is dead, is terrible.

A particularly well-drawn character, Matt does not know how to carve out his place as this new chapter in his and Daniel’s lives quickly develops. And the experience accentuates his status as an outsider in Daniel’s family —Daniel’s mother resents him for being neither Jewish nor, in her estimation, intellectually substantial. And compounding the situation is that Matt is highly ambivalent about Israel, and he has never been interested in taking care of kids.

And yet, as Matt largely rises to the occasion to become a parental figure to Gal and Noam, Daniel flails. Overwhelmed by his loss and increasingly given to insecurity about his homosexuality (in part because of the risk it initially poses in their custody battle), Daniel shuts Matt out and becomes emotionally unavailable. Although they have won custody of the children, the household in which they are raising them, put to the test by painful circumstances, is falling apart.

The book is set during the Second Intifada, when suicide bombings were at their height, and Frank ably portrays the diurnal realities and the visceral disruptions of living in the aftermath of such events. Although much of what occurs is specific to the Israeli situation (including a number of political statements that may irk some readers), the novel’s exploration of grieving and its impact on relationships is quite universal.

A different sort of caregiving, along with a different sort of sadness, are at the center of Roz Chast’s fine graphic memoir, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” Chast, who is best known for her sharp and angst-ridden cartoons for the New Yorker, has created a deeply felt, but often funny, record of her relationship with her ailing parents during their final years.

Chast’s parents, George and Elizabeth, had been living independently into their 90s, when Elizabeth has a fall and requires a higher level of medical care. The author, an only child, assumes responsibility for arranging their care — a job easier said than done, since much of it goes against her parents’ wishes, and their needs are ever changing as their health deteriorates.

The warts-and-all picture of her parents is memorable, but I was most affected by Chast’s observations about her own emotional challenges — the enormous stress of spending thousands of dollars each month to keep her parents in a nursing home, the guilt that comes with resenting them and not wanting to spend time with them, and the jealousy she feels when she witnesses their relationships to their medical caregivers, unencumbered by all of the baggage of parent-child ties.

The book has been a surprise best-seller, and I am confident that it is partly because people who have gone through similar experiences (and I count myself among them) recognize the full range of feelings that can emerge under these trying circumstances.

This is certainly Chast’s most ambitious endeavor, and she makes interesting choices with the graphic memoir form. While much of the book includes comic panels, some pages consist only of text; some incorporate old photographs, or photographs Chast herself took of what her parents left behind in the Brooklyn apartment that had been their home for half a century; and some are devoted to sketches of her mother dying. The sober realism of these final portraits stands in contrast to Chast’s characteristic shaky cartoon style that is otherwise employed throughout the book. Conjuring the last moments of a long and complex life with her mother, they carry extraordinary emotional power.

“All I Love and Know” by Judith Frank (432 pages, William Morrow, $26.99)

“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” by Roz Chast (240 pages, Bloomsbury, $28)


Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.