It’s always the same: As soon as Labor Day passes, mainstream magazines and newspapers bemoan the passing of summer, as though it’s an immutable fact that warmer days are done once September arrives.
For those of us in Arizona, however, we know we have plenty of warm days ahead, which means we can justify continuing to indulge in fun, escapist books often characterized by East Coast-centric critics as “beach reads.”
Whether you’re on an actual beach, in a hammock or listening to audio books as you walk your dog in the morning before the temperatures become unbearable, these books by Jewish authors provide plenty of distraction from the lingering heat.
‘Eligible’ by Curtis Sittenfeld, $17, Random House
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you’re looking for a good book to return to, Jane Austen will always deliver. If you’ve read “Pride and Prejudice” too many times, though, try the new-in-paperback “Eligible,” a modern-day “P&P” retelling by the half-Jewish Curtis Sittenfeld, who described herself to the Times of Israel as a Yiddish enthusiast with a “Jewish personality.”
The novel’s outspoken heroine, Liz Bennet, is a 30-something magazine writer in New York City. Her proud but compassionate romantic interest is still named Fitzwilliam Darcy, but here he’s a handsome neurosurgeon in Cincinnati, Liz’s hometown.
Liz and her sweet sister Jane, a yoga instructor, return to Cincinnati when their father has a heart attack. They find the Bennets are in debt and the house is falling into disrepair. Sisters Kitty and Lydia, in their 20s and heavily into CrossFit, are still living at home with no jobs. Mary is pursuing her third master’s degree, and is also still at home.
Familiar characters from Mr. Collins to Georgiana Darcy are all here with modern updates and tweaks: They text. They curse. They Google-stalk their crushes.
Mr. Bennet’s trademark sarcasm is on display and impatient Mrs. Bennet’s main concern is still marrying off her daughters, though her hopes for grandchildren are evaporating as Jane nears 40.
Speaking of, Charles Bingley is now Chip Bingley, a former contestant on the reality dating TV show “Eligible.” His appearance on the show was orchestrated by his sister and manager, Caroline. Now the Harvard med-school grad works in the ER at the same hospital as Darcy.
Sittenfeld clearly had fun developing her own spin on classic characters. Jasper Wick, a love interest for Liz, fills in for George Wickham, just as sly and self-serving as his predecessor. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is reborn as Kathy de Bourgh, a feminist author and speaker.
Laced throughout the story are commentaries about society. Class, race and gender are looked at through a new lens. Mrs. Bennet, the book says, “was prone to making declarations about almost all religious and ethnic minorities that were often uncomfortable for her listeners.”
Even in modern-day diverse Cincinnati, Mrs. Bennet has trouble accepting those different from her own family. It is also discovered in a small subplot that Mrs. Bennet’s heritage includes a line of Jewish ancestors, which the matriarch — who is recast as a homophobe, racist and a bit anti-Semitic to boot — does not acknowledge.
Mr. Bennet, a genealogy enthusiast, has discovered Mrs. Bennet’s maternal grandmother, Ida Conner, was once Ida Rosenbluth. Liz recalls a few uncomfortable moments when her mother has made slightly off-color remarks, such as, “Jews are very fond of dried fruit” (hello, Tu B’Shevat) and characterizing a party dress she once purchased as “Jewish-looking.”
Lydia and Kitty, after learning of their mother’s ancestry, recommend she have a late-in-life bat mitzvah and take to calling her “Jewess,” which Mrs. Bennet did not appreciate.
“Eligible” is a breezy read that, while certainly worthwhile, may also make you want to just pick up “Pride and Prejudice” and reread it. — Marissa Stern
‘Girl in Snow’ by Danya Kukafka, $26, Simon & Schuster
Although it’s billed as a whodunit, the debut novel of Danya Kukafka really is more a character study of three unhappy individuals. And while there’s no inherent Jewish aspect, Kukafka has said (via publicist) that growing up Jewish in Colorado influenced the book.
“The book is very much about the experience of being an outsider in the mostly white Christian Republican suburban Midwest,” Kukafka said. “Our Jewish community was extremely small, and that also prompted me to write about the experiences of insular communities in general.”
Kukafka, an assistant editor at Riverhead Books, certainly captures that isolation in the days immediately after the murder of popular high school student, Lucinda Hayes, in a small Colorado town.
We first meet Cameron, a fellow student who loved her from afar despite being neighbors.
Cameron’s a borderline stalker who’s uncomfortable in his own skin. He also deals with the burden of being the son of a disgraced former police officer who skipped town after a violent incident.
Then there’s Jade, another high school student, who’s your classic loner. She’s smart and sensitive, but erects a sullen veneer that prevents anyone from getting too close.
Finally there’s Russ, a police officer helping to investigate the case who has problems of his own, including a crumbling marriage and unsavory secrets he struggles with dating to the days when he worked with Cameron’s father.
The novel focuses on the days immediately after the murder, with the three characters’ lives intertwining from time to time.
While Kukafka’s clearly a talented writer with a keen sense of the disaffected, the novel does lag at times. And if you’re the type of reader who wants someone to root for, you won’t find it here.
Kukafka does a fine job of dropping hints at who the murderer might be, but the actual reveal seems a bit anticlimactic.
That said, despite the gloomy aura overall created, Kukafka does manage to create a sliver of hope for our three characters in the aftermath of the murder.
While “Girl in Snow” wasn’t written for the young adult market, it does have the feel of YA novels like “Thirteen Reasons Why.” If you liked the latter, you might appreciate the former, too. — Andy Gotlieb JN
Andy Gotlieb and Marissa Stern work for the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.