Review: Not Our Kind, by Kitty Zeldis
Harper, 2018. 337 pp. $27
One morning in 1947, Eleanor Moskowitz is on her way to a job interview when two taxicabs collide on a Manhattan street. Eleanor, riding in one, suffers a mild injury, though she’s more upset at missing her interview. But the passenger in the other taxi, Patricia Bellamy, insists on bringing Eleanor to her Park Avenue home and tending to her.
As it happens, Patricia’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Margaux, needs a tutor, and Eleanor has teaching experience and a Vassar degree. More importantly, Margaux takes to her instantly, as she has to no other person besides her parents and her mother’s brother, her Uncle Tom. As an angry, whiny child suffering a disability — she had polio and walks with a cane — she normally dislikes everyone on sight, so the connection to Eleanor means something to Patricia.
Trouble is, Eleanor’s Jewish, and Patricia’s an anti-Semite — the genteel sort, to be sure, but her husband, Wynn, is louder and more pointed about it. In fact, he’s louder and more pointed about everything, a drunken boor with roving eyes and hands. But the Bellamys hire Eleanor anyway, because Margaux likes her, and they’re desperate for someone to get through to their daughter.
But Eleanor has her doubts too. As her mother says, these prospective employers are “not our kind,” and the newly hired tutor feels intimidated by their wealth, apparent ease, and, well, perfection, observable even in the building where they live, only three blocks from her own:
Mrs. Bellamy lived in a twelve-story apartment building on the southwest corner of Eighty-Third and Park. Eleanor was more attentive today to the six limestone medallions, each depicting a wreath of fruit and flowers, the four massive Greek columns, two on either side of the door, as well as the black lanterns that were attached to the façade. With its limestone and brick exterior, the building projected a permanence, and even moral rectitude, that made the buildings in her own neighborhood seem almost provisional in contrast.
Zeldis has New York down — the clothing styles, social mores, scenery, and, most germane, workplace anti-Semitism. The author has a gift for the unexpected, the essence of tension, so that even when the plot seems predictable, events don’t turn out quite the way you think. I also like Zeldis’s knack for getting tremendous mileage out of a simple situation that’s actually very complicated, especially once Patricia’s charming, individualist brother happens on the scene and hits it off with Eleanor right away. The Bellamys’ prejudice lurks behind every interaction, as if the elephant in the room were trumpeting loudly, except they try not to hear it. It’s the problem that simply won’t go away, and Zeldis resists any temptation at easy fixes. For the most part, until the last quarter of the novel, the plot unfolds naturally, with no apparent guiding hand.
Where Not Our Kind falls short, I think, lies in the characters, especially the men. Wynn is a cartoon; Zeldis belatedly announces his merits, trying to mitigate his villainy, but you don’t see them. Likewise, though Tom’s charming, he’s elusive, and though I can see Eleanor admire his ease and wish she had it, and that she soaks up his kindness and sensitivity, that’s different from love. I like Patricia and her daughter, who seem real, and Eleanor’s mother, Irina, who can observe that she’s unhappy about decisions Eleanor has made, but that unhappiness isn’t fatal.
The heroine’s another story. I sympathize with Eleanor, but once I finished the book, I tried to remember her flaws and couldn’t. She’s unsure of herself and a little envious, but those hardly count, and she seems remarkably self-possessed, seldom at a loss for the words she needs to stick up for herself. She grows toward feminism without using the term, a worthy theme and apt for the time, but I find Patricia more rounded.
Further, Eleanor’s Jewishness is entirely cultural, and though many novelists draw such characters, I often suspect that they do so merely for the inconvenience that observance causes in the workaday world, or because they’re not confident they can do otherwise. Zeldis plainly can; late in the book, Eleanor recoils inwardly at pork on a plate. She could have, should have done that throughout the narrative–not necessarily as strongly, just to acknowledge her difference, her otherness, which she notes in many other ways.
Finally, Not Our Kind, despite its marvelous descriptions of clothing or architecture, doesn’t feel like 1947. There’s no sense of relief after a war, or even that there was a war, though we’re told that Wynn didn’t fight, and that Patricia lost a brother. There’s nothing about popular culture, politics (as in anti-Communist hysteria, whose roots lay in anti-Semitism), or other goings-on — surprising, given that Gentleman’s Agreement, a movie about covert anti-Semitism, came out that year.
I enjoyed reading Not Our Kind, but I don’t think it will stay with me.
Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.