Monday, December 26, 2011

Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant — 253 pgs

When Yona travels from New York to Israel to attempt a reconciliation with her estranged sister Dena, she's not only tormented, but heartbroken. It's been many years since an offense has torn the sisters apart, and Dena is now living with her husband and growing brood of children in a Jewish-American settlement in Israel. However these aren't the only changes, for Dena is now a militant crusader for advancement of the repatriation of the Jewish ancestral homeland and doesn’t desire a relationship with Yona at all. As the two sisters sway into tenuous emotional waters, Yona must not only realize that her desires may never be fulfilled, but also the extent to which Dena has changed. Meanwhile, young Greenglass, a visiting professor to Israel, makes a trip home to New York to visit and counsel the drug-addicted woman whom he left years before and replaced with stringent and devout Judaism. Discovering that he's not only losing the woman he once loved, but himself as well, Greenglass sets out on a journey of the heart that will take him into one of the most life-changing events that he has ever encountered. Finally, Aaron Blinder, a Jewish college dropout whose father is a best-selling author of books about the Holocaust, finds himself at the center of a radical Jewish enclave in the middle of the Israeli desert. In an effort to subsume his disappointment and failure, Aaron takes to the cause as a moth to the flame and becomes not only militant but recklessly dangerous. These protagonists meet in a culmination of misplaced ideals, misspent passion and spiritual conflagration. Both deep and psychologically penetrating, Wherever You Go tells the story of the human side of deep  religion and the repercussions that those with competing ideals and beliefs have on both the innocent and the tainted.

When I was preparing to read this book, I had not idea that it was going to be such a emotional and human story, filled with longing and regret, but also hope. I had been under the mistaken belief that this book was going to be somewhat more impersonal and more focused on specific groups of people, rather than individuals and the emotional loads they carried. It was beautiful and heartrending, and in a way, reading this book opened my eyes to the ways in which people wound each other, both intentionally and accidentally. I found myself caught up in the heartaches and struggles of the people that filled these pages, and Leegant’s prose had a way of reaching deep down into my soul and resonating in hollows I didn’t know I had.

This trifecta of stories intertwines around each other like a particularly inclement vine. As each protagonist deals with their very different circumstances, there are similar themes of alienation, absolution and restiveness that permeate them all and gently pepper the narrative with touches of naked vulnerability and heartbreak. Leegant has a perfect handle on her characters and story, never letting the pertinent points fade, but keeping them at the surface, where the reader can see not only the wounds but the scars of past experience as well. It's a heady balance of past and present that makes this book such a successful and emotional read. As I read, I was steadily grieving for the characters who had lost so much, yet remaining open to the possibilities of redemption that seemed to creep from the page.

I also think that Leegant mixes her characters well. There were some who were repugnant and some who were extremely sympathetic, but in this book, no one is totally flat and one dimensional. In what I think is a stroke of genius, Leegant makes her more difficult characters swell within their confines and become not villains, but horribly damaged people. It’s hard to hate the boy who's not loved, or to scorn the man who doesn’t know how to accept his family. Leegant gives us the whole picture and reflects through her plot permutations why they may have ended up like this and how they might still grow. She makes us see that it’s never black and white, although the darkest shade of gray may manifest itself as such, and places her characters in situations where it's impossible for them not to react and grow.

Though some aspects of this book left me with a heavy heart, there was indeed a lot of hope within the conclusion of the story, and for most of the characters, there was reason to be joyful. It must have been a sticky wicket to write about such controversial issues without being inflammatory and accusatory, but Leegant manages that and more. If you haven’t gotten the chance to read this book yet, I would recommend it to you. Its humility and energy were dark but very elastic and impressive. This is a story that I won’t soon forget and was glad to have read.


This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

16 comments:

TheBookGirl said...

I think that it is always difficult to write about issues such as religious divides without appearing to support one side or the other, but it appears from your comments like the author succeeds nicely on that point.
I get the feeling from your review that these characters are really outsize, without being caricatures, also a difficult feat to pull off. The fact that as the reader you felt such emotion, even for the villanious ones, makes me think that this is something I should try, even though I am not much for the short-story, vignette, type format.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've heard many good things about this book, but the idea of voluntarily reading a book that leaves me with a heavy heart is not appealing to me! Lovely review.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

As always, such an incredible, specific review...this sounds like one of those books we all "should" read...and set aside the time to let it meld in our thoughts and hearts.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I have this one on my shelf. Definitely need to get to it soon.

Harvee said...

Certainly a book for the holidays -family and religion, from different points of view. Perceptive review.

Kaye said...

I had no idea what this one was about. It sounds as though this book really touched you deeply. When an author can do that, I applaud their talent.

Happy reading in 2012!

bermudaonion said...

This sounds like a very emotional book. Whenever you review a book you've loved, you make me want to drop everything and read it. Great review, as always!

Suko said...

I agree with Kathy--your reviews are always so compelling. And I am also amazed by the sheer number of books you read! This book sounds like it would affect me greatly as well.

Beth F said...

When you first described the three different plot lines, I wasn't sure it'd be a book for me -- perhaps too much going on? But by the end, you've made me interested. I don't mind books that leave me thinking and with heavy emotions. The character development is what caught my attention.

Beth F said...

Oh shoot. I meant to add Merry Christmas and happy new year.

Vasilly said...

I've seen this book around but this is the first review I've read. This sounds like such a thoughtful book. What a great review.

nomadreader said...

I read this one earlier in the year and also really enjoyed it. I think I enjoyed Yona's story so much more than the others, which diminished my love of the book as a whole for me somewhat. Still, I adored Leegant's prose throughout. I'm glad you liked this one too!

Trisha said...

I am clearly behind because this is the first I've heard of this one. It certainly sounds compelling though.

Jenny said...

I am in the middle of reading this. I think I started reading it during a difficult reading phase which is why I never finished. I definitely plan to go back to it soon and am glad it is worth the read. I agree with Carrie that I am more interested in Yona's story though.

Marie said...

This is such a terrific book, and Joan is a great writer and a very nice person too!

Buried In Print said...

I was quite impressed by this one as well; I really appreciated the fact that there was such a variety of characters (particularly in terms of the diverse ways in which they approached -- or avoided -- their faith) and yet there were so many similarities between them as well. I'm surprised there hasn't been more chatter about this one: it's definitely a worthwhile read!

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