For Relief of Unbearable Urges

In response to Prentiss’ comments about the review of Ladies’ Auxiliary:
I’d love to read a review of Ladies Auxiliary by a gentile who’d grown up in a small southern town, with a culture of clan loyalty and fear of strangers; who was able to untease the aspects of the book that were commmon to southern small-town culture, and those that were distinctive to the Jewish culture in the story.
Yes, I read For Relief of Unbearable Urges for a book club. There were similarities in the themes — characters tempted both into and out of traditional Judaism. For the teenage girls in “Ladies Auxiliary”, the attraction is a combination of cultural freedom and sexuality — longing to have a prom, wear tantalizing dresses, have parties with boys and alcohol; the classic American dream of driving away. In “Unbearable Urges”, the yearning is named in the title — the urge to break out of the pattern of life — a WASP stockbroker driven by the urge to be Jewish; a wigmaker obsessed with the desire to to obtain the beautiful hair of a delivery man, to make a wig that would make her young and sexy again.
Englander is obsessed with discontinuity; Ladies Auxiliary lingers at the borders — the woman who wears culottes to tweak the “skirts-only” rule; the woman who keeps shrimp salad in the freezer, the woman who is not observant but makes Jewish food on holidays in an appeal to be considered a community member. The convert in Ladies’ Auxiliary leaves her secular life, but brings her beliefs in art and personal spirituality with her.
And yes, books are very different in tone. Englander’s comedy has a dark core; he writes from a spirit of modern literary alienation. The core relationships are broken; the wasp stockbroker convert and his uncomprehending wife; the wigmaker alienated from her husband, the mentally ill man whose wife runs out of forbearance. The Ladies Auxiliary comes from a tradition of sentimental women’s novels; and is full of little melodramatic subplots saturated in social context; the unconsummated attraction between the convert and the Rabbi’s son; the convert’s mentorship of the rebellious girls; the climatic ladies auxiliary meeting; the compassion of the Rabbi’s wife for the young stranger.
England is literary in a way that Mirvis is not; it’s hard to say whether that says something about the quality of the books, or about current segmentation of high and low culture.

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