Reviewed by Christine Jacques
Wherever You Go
by Joan Leegant
W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN-13: 978-0393339895, July 2011, Paperback: 253 pages
Joan Leegant’s fascination with radical movements and their adherents led her to write this concentrated debut novel. What beliefs can propel someone to such passion, and to justify any means to its end? Good questions, and Israel is good place to pose them. But this story about victims is about more than the settlement movement. This is about three victims, a tripod for Leegant’s well-balanced story.
As with St. Paul, Mark Greenglass was called out of his self-destruction to a life of worship. He holds himself hostage his drug-addicted former girlfriend. But without warning, his faith deserts him. This is a catastrophe for his career as a Talmudic scholar.
Yona Stern frustrates her artistic talents with a dead-end art gallery job. Years before she fell madly in bed with her sister’s adored husband, damaging their fragile sisterly relationship beyond repair.
Yona comes to Israel on the trail of her jilted sister Dena, now a fanatical West Bank settler, seeking forgiveness.
Aaron Blinder is the weakest leg of the tripod. His author father publishes tacky but bestselling novels of the Holocaust, which is nothing to flaunt in Israel. A less than attentive parent, abba Blinder takes every chance to deride his son’s dreams, and his need for affection. Without the imagination to see another solution, Aaron lets himself be manipulated into a crime that brings all three together in one horrific moment.
Yona, Mark and Aaron are groping towards some kind of redemption. For others Leegant doesn’t seem to have much hope. Case in point: an American tourist visiting the settlement waxes sentimental about the settler families, safeguarding their holy ancestral lands. So, Yona asks, why isn’t his family taking the same chance? “You have a very big and insolent mouth,” he snaps back. Life in a war zone is fine for the noble savages, but not for developers from Shaker heights with Harvard-bound sons. It’s easy to dismiss Mr. American Tourist as a hypocrite, but Leegant isn’t choosing sides. Aaron’s partners in crime are equally American (one is from Skokie), sentimental and easily manipulated. Mr. American Tourist may be a hypocrite, but he knows how he wants to live, and he doesn’t need anyone’s approval to do it. He keeps his nose clean, and his sons out of trouble. Abba Blinder doesn’t know when his son is in trouble.
Book groups will probably be asking what the title means. Its connection to the story of Ruth and Naomi really doesn’t play out. The flippant bumper sticker “Wherever you go, there you are” seems more apropos. Aaron’s attempt to replace his father with the “hero” Naftali Schroeder is self-destructive, and doesn’t buy him any emotional real estate. Aaron will always be a victim. Leegant underscores that chillingly, in his last meeting with his father. Mark and Yona fare better. When Mark finally accepts that his ex can’t accept his help, he slips his noose. Yona’s path is a little more complex, but ultimately she walks away from her need for Dena’s forgiveness as well. Leegant gives each some kind and righteous helpers along the way, and these supporting characters give Wherever a depth that it wouldn’t have if balanced only on the struggles of Mark, Yona and Aaron with their captors.
I hope Leegant continues working on fiction about modern Israel, particularly in light of the conflict between religious citizens, and its less observant members. If, as Joan Didion said “[writing is] entirely to find out what you’re thinking, what you’re looking at, what you see and what it means, what you want and what you fear”, fiction may be the best way to reconcile how Israelis feel with what they do.
About the reviewer: Christine Jacques lives in Colorado. Literature is her first love, but her husband is a close second.