Home > News > Families, Love, and Renewal in New Fiction
February 1, 2023 in Library Corner
By Robin Jacobson.
During an unwelcome visit from Covid-19, I dosed myself with soup, lemon drops (good for masking that metallic Paxlovid taste), and three novels: The Cost of Living by Beth El’s own Saul Golubcow (detective fiction), Atomic Anna by Rachel Barenbaum (science fiction), and Eternal by Lisa Scottoline (historical fiction). They were attention-grabbing and engaging, enough to keep me from obsessively checking my pulse oximeter, which is saying something. Surprisingly, despite their diverse genres, the books shared some common themes: families, love, and making the best life with what you have.
In these three linked mysteries set in Brooklyn in the 1970s, the detective is an elderly Holocaust survivor, Frank Wolf. In the book’s afterword, Saul Golubcow writes that the character of Wolf was inspired by his father-in-law and his parents. Mourning the families they lost in the Holocaust, they nonetheless resolved to build new lives in America.
As a Brooklyn detective, Frank Wolf employs the critical reasoning skills honed in his studies of Talmud and philosophy. Born in Vienna, Wolf earned rabbinical ordination before pursuing a university career as a philosophy professor. He survived World War II hiding in a cellar.
Like many fictional detectives, Wolf has a loyal sidekick – his beloved grandson, Joel, who advances from law student to lawyer as the stories progress. Together, the pair solve mysteries. Who murdered the kosher butcher? Who abducted the Hasidic child? To each case, Wolf brings the wisdom of Jewish teachings, along with insights and compassion born of his own suffering.
This novel opens with the Chernobyl nuclear accident in Ukraine in 1986. As a byproduct of the accident, Anna Berkova, the brilliant Soviet Jewish scientist who designed the nuclear facility, discovers a means to time travel. She resolves to harness that technology to travel back in time to prevent the Chernobyl disaster. But Anna’s friend Yulia implores her to use the time travel technology for more personal repairs – to fix the lives of Anna’s daughter and granddaughter.
When Anna’s daughter Molly was a baby, Anna was so apprehensive about Molly’s future in the Soviet Union that she persuaded Yulia and Yulia’s husband, Lazar, to flee with Molly to the United States. Molly grows up to become the talented creator of “Atomic Anna” superhero comic books, inspired by the real Anna’s life. Yet Molly struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. When she becomes a mother herself, she loses her daughter to foster care.
Can Anna both prevent the Chernobyl accident and change her family’s trajectory? As Jews who survived the Czar, the Nazis, and the Soviet state, Yulia and Lazar are hopeful: “We know better than most that you can always restart your life.”
Set in scenic neighborhoods in Rome before and during World War II, Eternal follows the intertwined lives of three friends – Sandro, Marco, and Elisabetta – from their teenage years into adulthood. When the book opens, Sandro, who is Jewish, has begun to pursue a career in mathematics, but his life is radically constrained by new Italian race laws which expel him from school and his family from their home. Sandro’s misery leads Marco, a protégé of a fascist officer, to question whether his loyalty to Mussolini’s party is misplaced. Both Sandro and Marco love Elisabetta, an aspiring novelist.
As in The Cost of Living and Atomic Anna, the characters in Eternal surmount devastating losses. One memorable passage in Eternal compares making a sustaining, delicious meal from leftovers and scraps to rebuilding a life with the ingredients on hand, even while grieving lost loved ones.