When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson, Houghton Mifflin; 336 pages, $24
The sight of a self-obsessed family is not a pretty one. Although to those enclosed within the obsession it constitutes their world entire, outsiders may gaze on the narcissistic mythmaking with some degree of horror. This, of course, is what makes such families fine fodder for fiction; think of J.D. Salinger's Glass family, Dara Horn's Ziskinds, or in film, Wes Anderson's Tenenbaums.
But it also sets the novelist a difficult task. Readers must be allowed the fun of hating such a family, but can't be allowed to hate them so much that they don?t enjoy the story. The reader, in other words, must be made to both care and sneer at the same time. When a writer actually pulls this off, it can make for an enjoyably complex reading experience, and British novelist Charlotte Mendelson, in her third work of fiction, "When We Were Bad," has pulled it off quite well.
It helps that the book is about the Rubin family's dissolution and not, say, their rise to fortune. We meet them, in fact, at their moment of greatest shame: In the midst of a lavishly staged wedding ceremony, the young groom, Leo Rubin, eldest son of the famous feminist crusader Rabbi Claudia Rubin, steps off the maternal bimah and into the middle-aged arms of his lover, the rebbetzin of a competing London synagogue. Pandemonium follows, broadens, briefly flags, and then comes into its glorious own, upending the lives of all six Rubins and a number of not-so innocent bystanders.
To guide us through the Rubins' deliciously disastrous story, we are presented with three characters who are at long last emerging from the suffocating fumes of myth in which Claudia Rubin wraps her kin like a musky perfume.
We spend most of the book following Frances, the anxious, awkward eldest child, whose passive way of going through life has landed her with two reluctant stepchildren and a husband who reacts to her state of emotional near-collapse by observing, "You seem distracted. I think you should seriously consider switching to herbal tea."
Then there is Leo himself, the boringly responsible barrister, made terribly irresponsible but not significantly less boring, by forbidden, all-consuming lust. Finally, there is Paterfamilias Norman, who for decades has been content to write small books about minor poets, allowing his wife to claim all things big and major for herself. "It's so interesting that you're the less successful one. Do you find it emasculating?" he is asked at one point, and we are given to believe this sort of thing happens often. Norman is a beautifully realized character, real and intimate and heartbreaking, and I had the nagging sense throughout that his family had characteristically and quite unjustly elbowed him into too small a corner of the book. He could have carried it on his own.
Left as intriguing ciphers are the two younger Rubin children, who seem to have built a life out of family obsession simply because it was easier than cobbling one together through hard work and adult decisions. At ages 27 and 30, neither has any career to speak of; both live at home, straining the family budget to its breaking point; and both think it terribly unkind and selfish of the two elder siblings not to do the same. Sim, savagely gorgeous, casually violent, and a genius of as-yet-undefined talent, spends his days collecting family artifacts (even grocery lists go into the collection), bedding women, and inexplicably loathing his older brother, Leo. Emily, also a beautiful genius without a medium, decides at age 27 to stop dating because, "if it upsets Mum I don?t want it either."
I found myself longing to see inside these frazzled psyches, not just to balance out the inner monologues of their kinder, duller siblings, but also because I suspect that Mendelson, with her careful attention to the details that make up a mind, could have done justice to them in a way most writers could not. But, alas, we are never given a revealing glimpse of the two damaged people behind the grotesque behavior.
Lawson meets Lerner
Nor are we given much insight into that cynosure of Jewish London, Rabbi Claudia Rubin herself. We are told many times about her irresistible beauty, her larger-than-life persona, and her "infinitely exciting mind." She is Nigella Lawson meets Michael Lerner, only far, far better. Yet the bits of the book narrated from her perspective are the least revealing, filled with such gems of introspection as, "She has always thought that if the surface were perfect, the rest would follow. Could she have been wrong?"
A renowned expert on family rearing, she meets challenges from her children with the question, "Are you in this family or against it?" and as the lives of her loved ones fall apart around her she is only minimally concerned with their pain, caring far more about the resulting ugliness and what this might do to her public reputation. It is no wonder that her husband and children are still struggling to understand how to give weight to their own preferences.
As these struggles move forward, and the individual dramas begin to interlock, marriages end, new fame blossoms in unlikely places, boys turn out to be girls, romances pop up where they ought not, and an over-the-top Seder goes horribly awry. Often hilarious, and consistently fun, still these plotlines - engaging as they are are almost beside the point. They are merely vehicles for the resolution of some serious mother issues.
Luckily, and without giving away too much, none of these get too neatly resolved.This is not psychotherapy lit, but clever social satire, and it builds to an ending that is more elegant than redemptive. And this, after all, is what we want from the self-obsessed family: to be able to forgive just enough to move past them, but not enough to forget them.
Yael Goldstein's novel "Overture" was published earlier this year by Doubleday.