Safekeeping: Memorable Characters, So-So Plot

Jessamyn Hope
Fog Tree Books, 371 pages, #978-1941493069
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Subtitle Jessamyn Hope's debut novel "Where's Dagmar?" Or maybe, "Whither Israel?" Hope's sprawling novel centers, in part, on the fate of a precious heirloom broach with such a long history that it's no longer clear whether it should be in someone's personal possession, or on display as a symbol of Jewish heritage.

The novel's central tension lies in the fact that it does lie in personal hands–those of Adam, a 26-year-old drug addict living in New York City, whose ownership of it is tainted. Though he is a very secular Jew, Adam seeks redemption on many levels; hence he flees New York for Israel with only the broach and the clothes on his back.  His only plan is to cleanse himself by giving the broach to a woman named Dagmar. Why? Because the broach once belonged to his (now deceased) grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, who briefly lived on Kibbutz Sadot Hadar after Israel was founded.  Adam learned that she, not his grandmother, had been the love of his life.

As a birth Jew, Adam is entitled to enter Israel, and as a family member of a former kibbutznik, he provisionally enters Sadot Haddar. Staying there will require finding himself before he sets off to find Dagmar—cold turkey detox, establishing some work habits, and abstaining from alcohol for starters. But the hardest part might be negotiating kibbutz politics and personalities. The year is 1994, and the old socialist ideals of Sadot Hadar are under attack by those who wish to abandon radical equality and bring the place into late 20th century economic reality. Want some tension? Opposing all efforts to modernize is aged but fiery Ziva, an ardent Zionist, communist, and cofounder of Sadot Hadar; her son is on the other side. Moreover, Adam may not be the most screwed up camper on the premises. There is, for instance, the flirtatious Ulya, a young Belarusian lass who dreams of leaving the dreary kibbutz to live glamorously in New York. Never mind that her image is from a very old issue of Life Magazine. There's also Ofir, a teenaged Israeli soldier whose head is filled with music, not military strategy; and Claudette, a French-Canadian Catholic with such severe OCD that she can barely function. And why is Farid, a Palestinian man, always lurking about after hours?

The strength of Hope's novel lies with her memorable characters. As a storyteller, though, Hope occasionally stumbles. The broach is a classic Chekhov's gun, so we must get its back-story in flashback sequences and let's just say that The Red Violin it's not. The story arc is likewise too predictable, a problem made more acute by the fact that the narrative is driven by mysteries that don't require Sherlock Holmes to reveal. More to the point, it's a problem if readers unspool them many pages before they are officially revealed. Ironically, the non-Jewish Claudette is the only character whose actions surprise us.   

We are supposed to overlay Adam's story, that of the broach, and the fate of Sodot Hadar and then extrapolate that generational clashes over values are analogous to Israel's own growing pains. Sodot Hadar translates as "fields of splendor," and we are invited to muse over the question of how much can change (for people, communities, and nations) before essential character disintegrates into incoherence. Interesting premise—but, in my view, not one fully realized. But maybe that's because I'm like Claudette: a non-Jewish observer. I suspect, though, that it's because Ms. Hope has some growing of her own to do.

Rob Weir       

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