Category Archives: unpublished

Dear John Updike,

 I first encountered your work in The New Yorker in the early Sixties, but I got married anyway. Your take on marriage in Of the Farm, Couples and, of course, the Rabbit series validated my growing fear that the institution I was raised to aspire to was far from the safe haven I expected. It wasn’t as if my parents’ marriage had been blissful, but I figured they were the exception. My cool artsy husband would be different from my volatile lawyer dad, and I was nothing like my reserved and priggish mom. What could those two possibly know of love?

On our wedding day in 1962 when the rabbi solemnly proclaimed my groom, a student of architecture, to be the “architect of my destiny,” I felt a tiny twinge in my gut, but I blamed it on the August heat and the excitement of the occasion. Sadly, my gut was onto something because things went mostly downhill after that. It was only thanks to your books, especially Couples, that I knew I wasn’t alone. In Couples you dissect the marriages, mores, and misperceptions of a group of young marrieds just a bit older than we were who were tumbling in and out of what they called love with astonishing rapidity. In spite of or because of improved contraception, changing attitudes towards divorce, and the displacement of religion and its taboos by psychoanalysis, these folks were serially adulterous, duplicitous, self-deluded, and alcoholic.

Now I’d read Peyton Place as a teenager, so you weren’t the first author to bare the secrets of a community to me. What made the fictional town of Tarbox where Couples takes place and the novel itself different was twofold: the Sixties were different from the Fifties and you made Piet Hanema, the pivotal figure in Couples, not only real, but also, at times, familiar. I could identify with him even while I disapproved. And he is enviable. I envy him his insight and descriptive mastery, your descriptive mastery. To Piet, each face, conversation, sunset, and building has its own defining characteristics and no two vaginas are quite the same.

It is Piet’s endless search for unconditional love that finally destroys his marriage and breaks up his circle of enablers. The novel ends with the church in flames, couples divorcing and recoupling, the Asian scientist dying, and the Jewish couple leaving town. This dénouement seemed almost cheerful to me because the characters know a bit more about love and marriage than they did at the beginning. And a few even know more about themselves. Without self-understanding, the sexual revolution with its promise of foolproof birth control, multiple orgasms, and “free” love was wasted on us all. It took me a while to grasp that. I understood what Portnoy had to complain about, but frankly, it was, at first, hard for me to understand what made the mostly WASP couples of historical and picturesque Tarbox so miserable. I thought they were living the American Dream in lovely homes where they ate gourmet meals and played touch football like the Kennedys.

But you saw that America was changing not only in the bedroom, but also in boardrooms, offices and towns. You saw that our countryside was disappearing. In your books you chronicle the ripple effect of our natural landscape mutating from field to suburb to sprawl on those like Rabbit Angstrom and Piet Hanema. Poor Rabbit’s high school heroics on the basket ball court had not prepared him for the upheavals of the second half of the Twentieth Century any more than his memories of those glory days fortify him against his own racism, stubbornness, and overactive libido. Piet Hanema, a builder who takes pride in the houses he custom crafts, sees himself replaced by developers who mass-produce McMansions. Piet mourns what is lost even as he adapts.

Your admirable ability to capture people writhing in the throes of changes they cannot control inspired me as I wrote about my own teaching experiences in the Sixties and Bel Barrett’s in the Nineties and then again as I formulated a historical novel set in Seattle’s Jewish community during the Klondike Gold Rush and in 1965. Thank you for your incomparable books.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, unpublished

Dear Bharati Mukherjee,

I wasn’t prepared to enjoy your novel Jasmine because it’s an immigrant saga and I’d tired of them even before I learned to read. My paternal grandparents were part of that “wretched refuse” washed up on America’s shores to sweat and slave so that my dad and his siblings could either become lawyers and optometrists or marry them. Even though those long-suffering Old World ancestors worked themselves to death years before I was born, my parents fed me their stories of sacrifice and struggle along with my Pabulum and formula. Every time I heard the words, “When she was your age, your grandma . . .” I longed to stick my fingers in my ears and my nose in the pages of a book about those all-American March sisters or that lucky little girl who lived with her normal parents in their cozy sod cottage out west.

Dan Short

But Jasmine is an imaginary immigrant, a fairy tale survivor with looks and chutzpah. Her equally imaginary grandchildren will hear how a gutsy teenager from an impoverished Punjabi village made the proverbial “better life” for herself in an America that was ripping the welcome mat right out from under the latest generations of huddled masses. Jasmine’s children will brag to their kids about how their mother, destined to be widowed and exiled, defied that grim forecast to become an American woman who determines her own fate. The instant I finished the novel, I added it to the syllabus of a course called Cultures and Values I was teaching at a community college in Jersey City, New Jersey.

International Art and Culture Agency

As an English prof, you surely know the risks inherent in rereading a much-loved book with students. For me it was like having a non-Jewish friend at our Seder table. I hope her enjoyment of the familiar chicken soup will inspire her to try the gefilte fish or at least to refrain from gagging audibly when I serve it. To my immigrant students in the Nineties, the quick-witted and lovely Jasmine was chicken soup, a superwoman sister. Her struggles were epic versions of their own and her conquests nourished their souls. But they had trouble understanding why the young widow fled the familiar but constraining comforts of the Punjabi community in Queens to seek out the real America.

Google Images

For my students the America that Jasmine explores was foreign, as much puzzle as Promised Land, more gefilte fish than chicken soup. It’s a place where many people, even women, routinely take fate into their own hands. One teenager in my class, promised to a man she’d never met still in Pakistan, asked, “Why would Jasmine’s employer, a successful career woman, divorce her husband, the father of her child, just because she fell in love with someone else?” A young male classmate from Kenya was astounded when Jasmine encounters a childless woman undergoing treatments to remedy her infertility. “The doctor can heal this woman so she can have a son? For sure?” I kept your moving and evocative book in the syllabus, and every time I reread it, I was struck by the appeal a well-crafted immigrant narrative has for all of us.

Meanwhile, I was conflicted about my own Jewish roots, and I resolved that someday I would write a novel about a Jewish immigrant girl who, like Jasmine, and unlike my grandparents, breaks with the constrictions and comforts of her culture to shape her own life. But it wasn’t until years later when I found myself out of my own comfort zone─ hundreds of miles from a good Jewish deli and often the only Jew in the room─ that I actually did. And your fictional Jasmine  helped me dream up Feigele Lindner, one of the protagonists of The Bones and the Book. So thank you for creating Jasmine and for your gifted telling of her story.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under Coming of age story, feminist fiction, Immigrant story, unpublished