Review: The Beautiful Possible, by Amy Gottlieb
Harper, 2016. 306 pp. $16
This thought-provoking, flawed novel does at least one thing very well: It makes you think about spiritual connections, even if (as in my case), you don’t have a spiritual bone in your body.
The story begins in Berlin, November 1938. Anyone familiar with that dateline immediately goes uh-oh, for it’s the time of Kristallnacht, “Night of the Broken Glass,” the infamous pogrom against Jews. Sure enough, Walter Westhaus loses his father and fiancée to murderous thugs; Walter escapes only by hiding under the bed.
By chance, he winds up in Bombay, where he studies at Rabindrath Tagore’s ashram. A shattered soul wrapped around a brilliant mind, Walter finishes out the war there, and in 1946, a religious scholar who admires him brings him to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Though he has no patience for the nuts and bolts of rabbinic study, Walter’s ability to find meaningful correspondences between Eastern and Jewish teachings sets open minds on fire. One mind not quite open enough belongs to Sol Kerem, a rabbinical student of whom everyone expects great things. At first, Sol seeks out Walter as someone with whom to study the sacred texts, only to reject him. However, Sol’s spirited fiancée, Rosalie, gets more than a little closer.
Rosalie, the novel’s only fully developed character, literally embodies the essential struggle of religious life. She’s the battleground where physical desire, belief, practice, and longing for opposed experiences twist her every which way. The retrospective prologue, voiced by her youngest child, Maya, now studying for the rabbinate herself, declares that Walter, Sol, and her mother have an unusual bond. Return to 1946, add Sol’s reluctant refusal to have premarital sex, and you can guess that Rosalie will have an affair with Walter, who understands physical passion but can’t give her anything else, being largely aimless and stuck in Kristallnacht.
Her lover is a homeless man, caught between worlds. He wears the wrong clothes in the wrong seasons. She wants to live in a house, a real house with two tables: one in the kitchen and one in the dining room. . . . She wants to build a family, create a link in the chain of generations. And she wants to do this with Sol, who is learned and sincere and who will teach her Talmud early in the morning before the children wake up.
This is a deep dilemma, which Gottlieb explores with skill. Where does desire figure in a religious life, and what does it truly mean? Are certain desires wrong because the Torah says so? These questions and others bedevil Rosalie constantly. As a reader, I have to reflect along with her, and though I come up with different answers, her story makes me think.
I also like that for once, here’s a novel in which Jewish characters exist in more than name. So many authors borrow Judaism only so that their characters face bigotry but are conveniently secular, in many ways living like anyone else, with scant thought for or tension over the identity for which they’re being persecuted. Not here. Gottlieb portrays observance like a second skin, not just to credibly re-create a belief system or lifestyle, but so that she can grapple with what an observant life means.
That said, The Beautiful Possible remains unsatisfying. Maya’s prologue nearly spells out that she’s Walter’s child, so you’re not surprised when Rosalie and Walter’s affair continues intermittently through the years. Since Sol also feels attracted to Walter, an impulse he reveals once and suppresses forever, potential conflicts are ready to explode in all directions. But both men, with Rosalie’s collusion, plant themselves firmly on their volcanoes and never budge. Sol seems like a stereotypical intellectual cleric, incapable of reaching his congregants, while Walter’s somehow able to sleep with any woman he fancies and write book after famous book, without caring much or even breaking a sweat.
I kept wanting the three main characters to duke things out, not leave themselves to Maya to decipher. I get that Gottlieb means to say that Rosalie’s dilemma about body, soul, belief, and observance is unresolvable, and that Maya’s rabbinical studies will force her to repeat the cycle. But to say that these conflicts are ongoing, and the issues too large to decide, isn’t new. And setting up a conflict that never occurs feels like trickery.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.