Monday, April 28, 2014

Jew and WASP, in 20th-Century Manhattan

Joanna Hershon's fervently readable new novel, A Dual Inheritance, follows friends of different ethnicities and classes as they swerve through the awkwardness of adolescence into the complexity of middle age. Like Rich Boy, The Interestings, and A Fortunate Age, Inheritance drops Jewish strivers and alienated WASPs into the boiling pot that is 20th-century Manhattan, stirs and lets sit, and then fishes them out to examine how they and their children have changed, revealing the truth of their stripped-down selves.

NYC is not the book's only crucible: characters take eye-opening journeys to Dar es Salaam, Haiti, Shenzhen, St. Maarten, and elsewhere. Many literary novels revel in the power of unfamiliar settings to expose vulnerabilities: Franzen dumps one protagonist in Lithuania and another in Argentina; Shteyngart nearly strands one in Prague. Hershon describes locales, and locals, with intelligent sympathy.

Aside from an uninspired title, the book's main drawback is that benevolence. Fortunate coincidence buoys everyone, which saps the most heightened scenes of some tension. And Hershon is an unabashed romantic. Still, none of that mitigates the pleasure of accompanying insightful, challenging characters over decades as they struggle with the questions of income vs. wealth, friendship vs. family, and self-awareness vs. ambition.

- Ester Bloom for Jewniverse


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