Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Closer to Fine
by Jodi S. Rosenfeld
She Writes Press
May 25, 2021, ISBN-13 : 978-1647420598
A quote from the poet/philosopher Rumi on author Jodi Rosenfeld’s website crystallizes the theme of her novel, Closer to Fine. In “The Guest House,” Rumi writes:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness.
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
In Closer to Fine, Rosenfeld’s protagonist/narrator, Rachel Levine, gradually adopts this philosophy as she journeys from insecurity and anxiety to “fine.” Although the prologue and epilogue are set in 2019, the main action of the novel begins in 1995 when Rachel, twenty-three and newly graduated from college, begins her graduate studies in Psychology. She has moved out of her parents’ home in Bryn Mawr to stay with her widowed grandfather’s house in Somerville, MA, near her program. Before she left home, her mother warned her that it will kill Zayde (Grandpa) if Rachel divulges that she’s gay, “or bisexual,“or whatever you’re calling it nowadays,” as her mother puts it.
Early in her college years, Rachel discovered that there was a name,“bisexual”, for someone like herself who can feel passion for both men and women. She has loved boys for their strength and protectiveness and girls for their softness, intuition and emotion. When Rachel came out, her dad was accepting, her mother was angry, and her brother, Zeke, asked, “Don’t you have to choose, eventually?” In college she had a girlfriend, Nora, but in highschool she had a boyfriend, Jason, and during the course of the novel when she accidentally crosses paths with him, she confides: “[H]e “elicits so much old stuff in me..It makes me want him, and…want him to miss me and …seeing him makes my heart feel broken all over again.”
Later in the novel, a woman in a lesbian marriage suggests that when Rachel wants to find a life-long partner, she will face a dilemma. Will she conform to convention (with its benefits and difficulties) and marry a man, or will she marry a woman and possibly get no support except from the women’s community? to last a lifetime through. A woman married to a man is has all the support of convention. Rachel believes in “fate, and who you meet and who you love, and that becomes your life.” Elsewhere she says that she feels the most alive when she’s in love.
Whenever Zayde speaks glowingly to his friends about Rachel’s studies and achievements, Rachel feels guilty, doubting that he’d be so proud if he knew she was “bi.” When she accompanies him to his Conservative synagogue, however, she’s surprised and impressed by the progressive, inclusive rabbi, Loren Stein. The rabbi says that Judaism is all about “welcoming the stranger”. Although as a Conservative rabbi, she isn’t allowed to perform gay wedding ceremonies, she intends to announce forthcoming gay weddings during services and to encourage non-Jewish parents to participate in the rituals of their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs.
Sadly, Rachel learns that Zayde doesn’t support Loren’s’ innovations and doesn’t want her contract renewed. Considering his viewpoint retrograde, she is surprised and pleased when through him she learns about a Jewish tradition that she never before thought about. Zayde sits watch over the body of a deceased member of the congregation, thereby doing the highest good deed that a person can do for another. Sitting with the departed person, during the hours between death and burial, when the soul hovers near the body, is a vigil/meditation of which she approves.
For field placement, Rachel is assigned to the counselling centre of a small liberal arts college near Boston. She likes her supervisor, Dr. Vargas, who tells the Ph.D students that they must look upon their counselling as partnering with a client. When Rachel is assigned an anxious young man whom she thinks may be gay, she asks Dr. Vargas if she should come out to him to make him feel accepted. “I’m gay, or rather, ‘bisexual’, really, but you know, gay enough,” she blurts. The doctor says that Rachel will know when the time is right. The sections about Rachel’s work with this youth are gripping.
“Who in my life really knows me?” Rachel asks herself. Fate seems to supply her with a soul-mate when a slight, compact woman with a chic haircut and a boy’s body, comes to shul and is welcomed by the rabbi. Liz is the daughter of old acquaintances of Zayde, who have retired to Florida. A Yale graduate, she has returned to Boston after three years in Paris researching feminism, and now has come home to work with a non-profit supporting Jewish LGBTQ people. They seem made for each other, even though Liz has trust issues.
Dr. Rosenfeld’s novel is informative and interesting on the subjects of Judaism, Psychology, and same sex relationships. I was charmed by Rachel’s envisioning of God as a woman angel whose patchwork wings are made up of one’s glimpses of the divine. Another excellent idea is presented in the novel – that after a break-up, a woman should buy herself a ring to symbolize her commitment to herself as her own best friend.
Closer to Fine is also well-structured, with subtle hooks at the end of each chapter, and low-key hints of the outcome. It is so insightful and moving that one hesitates to quibble with any of the author’s narrative decisions. Some readers, however, will be disappointed that Zayde’s role diminishes as the novel draws to a close. His traditionalist views are understandable because of his age, and he is endearing because of his love for Rachel. Near the end, his friend Bess shares some information that shows the depth of his love for his granddaughter, but we are denied a scene in which he gives Rachel his blessing.
The novel then jumps from the 1990s to 2019, showing us a calm, happy Rachel at a family celebration, surrounded with family and friends. Though her life-partner is among them, she doesn’t convey her feelings for this special person or let them stand out in the crowd. With this open ending, Dr. Rosenfeld may be conveying to us that we must learn to accept and handle the ambiguities and uncertainties of life.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta admires novels like Closer to Fine which entertain and educate her. For more information about Votes, Love and War (Ottawa, Baico, 2019) and her other novels, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her blog http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com