Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Rambler's Summer Reading: The Bridge Ladies (Lerner) and And After the Fire (Belfer)

I typically read in the evenings, but summer has afforded options for both beachside and poolside reading.  I'll take it!

I rarely read memoirs, but I was drawn to this selection when offered the chance to read and review an advance copy by the publisher.  Having returned to her native Connecticut, Lerner becomes intrigued by her mother and the other women that make up her mom's bridge circle.  These are Jewish women who live in a upper-middle class suburb and who are devoted to each other in a very unique way.  She speaks in-depth to all of the women about their youth, their loves, and their lives.  Lerner had longed struggled to differentiate herself from he mother, but now tries to truly get to know her mother as a fellow woman.  In the process, Lerner also learns to play bridge herself and appreciate the complexity of the game and the relationships built around it.  Of course, she also finds she learns a bit more about herself in the process.

I enjoyed this book which often felt more like a novel than a memoir.  It took me some time to be able to keep track of all the ladies, but I appreciated seeing both the similarities and the differences in a group of women who came of age in the same time period with similar expectations (largely centered on finding a husband who would provide well and then raising a family).  The "cast of characters" includes some truly interesting women who might seem, on the surface, a bit bland to a more "modern" audience. 

I didn't love the book, but I definitely liked it so 3.5 stars (I'll round up where I can't pick half-stars, but I really do like my 3.5!).  I think it is particularly well-suited for women who might be the daughters or granddaughters of these ladies.
This book spans centuries with the story tied together by a piece of music.  The piece is by Bach and thus inherently considered a masterwork, but it also contains highly Anti-Semitic words.  In the modern-day tale, Susanna finds the piece when cleaning out her uncle's belongings after his death.  Susanna is a newly divorced woman living in NYC, coping with the aftermath of an attack, and working in the non-profit arena.  She takes on the role of the piece's caretaker and devotes substantial time and energy to learning more about it and understanding where it came from and why her uncle kept it hidden for years. 

The modern-day story is interwoven with the story of the piece's prior caretakers starting with a relative of Bach gifting the piece to a young Jewish woman in the latter 18th Century.  A substantial part of the book is about this woman's life, a life she devotes to the arts and to her extended family.  We also watch as the piece is handed to other caretakers, building up to the book's opening scene which depicts the transfer of the piece from a young woman to Susanna's uncle in the days following WWII. 

I enjoyed this book (I read an Advance Readers' Edition supplied to me by the publisher), but it did eventually drag a bit for me.  I definitely preferred the storyline(s) depicting the piece's past caretakers to the modern day story.  The book raises a lot of questions about art as all of the caretakers, including Susanna, struggle to with the conflict between the piece's beauty and the hateful words it contains.  These are interesting issues and I enjoyed thinking about them alongside the characters.  I did get a bit tired of Susanna's story.  I appreciate well-rounded characters but it felt like Belfer tried to put too many ideas into the narrative and tried to hit too many genres (a bit of romance, a bit of growing past tragedy, etc). 

3.5 stars -- Like but not love.