Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant: Impressions

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Wherever You Go is Joan Leegant's elegant and lyrical novel exploring the relationship between American Jews and Israel, their faith, and each other. It's told through the points of view of three separate, disconnected characters: Yona Stern, a 30-year-old single woman who is at sea in her own life in New York and travels to Israel to attempt reconciliation with her sister, now part of a settlement in the Palestinian territories; Mark Greenglass, a drug addict turned Talmud teacher who's just lost the religion that saved him; and Aaron Blinder, a young, directionless, immature college drop out who finds himself drawn into a Jewish extremist group in Israel.

The novel explores the question of Jewish faith and faith in general, and different ways Jews come to terms with their Jewishness both culturally and spiritually. We get to know the characters through their present inner struggles peppered with snapshots of the key moments from their past that led them to where they currently find themselves. Yona, an artist at heart, has been punishing herself for her betrayal of her sister, Dena, over the past decade. It becomes clear later in the novel that she is not in Israel to make amends with her sister so much as to learn to forgive herself.

In fact, all of the characters, in the end, are searching for ways to live with the decisions they've made. Mark feels perpetual guilt (is there a Jewish guilt just like there's a Catholic guilt?) that the addict girlfriend of his youth, once considered the love of his life, remains trapped in the drug-addled existence from which he managed to escape. He has a tiring savior complex about it, not realizing that she is not his to save. Aaron can't come to terms with the terrible mess he's made of his own unintentional life, and only realizes he wants to fix it after he's practically ruined it beyond repair.

Much of the novel explores the tragedies of our failures to understand each other and ourselves, encapsulated in an observation by Yona's precocious neice:

"That's the thing about animal cries," the girl said. "About any creature we don't understand. Some sounds are hostile and others are friendly, but we can't tell the difference."

Leegant's writing is descriptive and detached yet emotionally present. I've never traveled to Israel but the word-sketches and anecdotes were vivid enough to make me believe that I had. The character names also clearly have some meaning (Aaron's last name of Blinder being the most obvious), as well as Leegant's choice to refer to both Yona and Aaron by their first names and Greenglass by his last. She also depicts the dangerous effects of extremist thinking in a fresh way - and gives a face to the Jewish side of religious extremism.

If you enjoy novels that give you a glimpse into ways of life with which you are unfamiliar, I would definitely recommend this. In the end, the novel highlights the importance of forgiveness and compassion and redemption, for ourselves and others. In a dream, Greenglass learns:

To live is to make mistakes! To accumulate regrets! We should welcome our mistakes like flowers, collect our regrets and care for them, for they too sprout from good soil.

*I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
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