I started reading Charlotte Mendelson's third novel, When We Were Bad, when it first came out in hardback in May last year. After twenty pages, I put it aside. I was in the middle of the Orange shortlist '07, and had just finished Xiaolu Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers, which I'd found difficult to read (the less said, the better), and something about Mendelson's book - the domestic pitch, the glib neatness? - made me squirm. Picking it up again, I was initially surprised at my last-years-self. I thought: could this possibly be the same book I discarded? I didn't remember it being so witty, or so smooth, or half so compelling. I was giddy and hooked for a hundred pages at least. But then, around the midway point, I felt the enchantment beginning to wear off; another hundred pages and I was positively weary. By the end I'd mostly lost my taste for Mendelson's witty flirtations with style and substance, and was desperate for something solid.*
The novel centres around the Rubins, a liberal Jewish family headed up by the charismatic, history-making Rabbi Claudia, a woman whose ambitions, and ego, know no limits. As the novel opens, in the spring of 2001, she is about to execute a social triumph - the marriage of her eldest son, Leo, which has been too long in coming - and is revelling in her element:
She shines amongst them, caramel-skinned, narrow-eyed, with a brain women envy and an opulent, maternal, fuckable body which makes men weak. Those guests who do not know her well mill cautiously in her direction, hoping for their moment.
So popular is the Rabbi, so extroadinary, so gifted, so motivated, that she is almost obscene. She is a superwoman; a shining example of over-achievement, of whom a little goes a long way. Her husband, Norman, is a brown mouse in comparison - even his name is a dull disappointment. A retired academic with an unprofitable penchant for minor poets, he shuffles about the family home like the dethroned patriarch he is. At Claudia's extravagent dinner parties he tells tired, self-depracating jokes about his failure and fends off the hungry envy of his wife's admirers. Also at these dinner parties are their four children, put out on display as the perfect brood: the aforementioned Leo (successful lawyer, check), Frances (married, with baby, check), Emily (soon-to-be discovered as an actress, check) and Simeon (whose-book-will-be-out-some-day-soon, check). They are 'attentive, affectionate, as close as a family can be.' The blaze of glory that emanates from them on Leo's wedding day is almost too bright to look upon. And so on, and so forth.
Of course, they're about to tumble from the pedestal; nothing is ever perfect for long. You'd have to be daft as a bat not to see the fall coming. As Mendelson puts it in her prologue: 'If this, the few minutes before the wedding, could be frozen and kept unsullied by the future - the Rubins in their heyday - their happiness would be complete. But it cannot be frozen. Things happen.' In the moments that follow Leo balks beneath the wedding canopy and abandons his bride for Helen Baum, the 40-something wife of a rival Rabbi with whom he has been having a turgid affair. Running out of the synagogue hand-in-hand with his mistress, he leaves his family in utter disarray. The patina of harmony quickly begins to peel away from them. Frances admits to herself that she doesn't love her husband and is a terrible mother; Emily begins a rebellious affair with a woman; Norman reveals a long-kept secret (which turns out to be quite a happy secret after all) and Simeon hurtles from one feckless binge to the next. Meanwhile, at the centre of the unravelling web, Claudia tries to bring them back together again for one final moment of glory on the publication of her new book on family values.
For a while Mendelson's sharp, clean style brings all of this together successfully. She manages to pull off a 'fusion' novel - the biblical saga of the Jewish household meets soap opera meets contemporary fiction - with humour and panache. Certainly, she is a writer in full control of her art. You can feel the skill in every well-turned sentence, and each one slips down perfectly - a smile here, a touch of tragedy there. The conflict of Leo's lust, for example, is succinctly, deftly, expressed:
He is a rabbi's son whose family needs him; the house on which they all depend is crumbling; his grandfather is made and frail in the Home for Aged Jews; and even as he prays, a battering ram of an erection, a teenager's hard-on, is thumping against his desk drawer.
And she has a beguiling way with metaphor, even if it does sometimes verge of the edge of the ridiculous:
Frances's words echo all the way up St. John Street. Should she apologize? Her blush heats the air around her: she is Jonathan's travel-kettle element, not a suitable Saturday night companion for Jay.
Mendelson winks and nods her way through a dozen whole chapters before you realise that you don't quite like the taste of what you're swallowing. The premise is claustrophobic and self-limiting - it is difficult not to groan at the outset of yet another novel about familial breakdown, with nothing more to break the tedium, even if the family have the added interest of being liberal Jews. The scenarios are repetitive - Leo is conflicted; Frances is conflicted; Norman is conflicted, and so on and on and on - while the characters are often bloodless or cartoonish or downright silly. Worst of all, the narrative voice is vacuous - highly polished but with no depth to the grain. A little, perhaps, like Claudia herself. There she sits, the spider at the centre of the web, replete and gleaming, but giving no real sense of what lies beneath. Norman expresses it well: Nothing can be straightforward with her. Over the years he has learned that her apparent openness is simply a bright surface. Mendelson seems to envision her as a latter day Mrs Dalloway, as she would have been if she and not her husband had been an MP, planning the party of the decade as her life ekes away. But she is bound to fail; clever turns of phrase don't get that kind of thing done. It requires something else, a sense of something which When We Were Bad is sadly lacking. Restraint, perhaps, or subtlety.
The only character with whom I felt any sympathy was Frances, Claudia's sad, frumpy eldest daughter. Her situation in life is so dismal, and so common, that it is difficult to actively dislike her; admittedly she also makes it hard to actively like her but nevertheless. Ambivalently married, with two young step-daughters and with a new baby of her own, Frances finds it impossible to speak in complete sentences. She begins them, chock full of the urge to say something, only to watch them putter to nothing. Her husband drones on about nutritional values, and road safety, and new shoes for his girls; and her mother orders her to buy chickens, get candles, be on time; and her younger siblings demand she comfort and care for them, while she feels a horrible detachment from everything:
Other people are warm right the way through, thinks Frances: full of love and interest and involvement , with tiny healthy wisps of annoyance. But I am freezing cold inside, burning and brittle on the surface. Could I be turning into baked Alaska? What is wrong with me?**
She even doubts her ability to love her own child; she feels un-natural. In some ways she reminds me a little of those women from Arlington Park, who piqued my sympathy last year with their coffee mornings and double buggies in the hallways. There was something torturously mundane about their despair which Frances shares. Or, at least I can imagine she does. Really, though, When We Were Bad doesn't go in for the mundane tragedies - it prefers despair of the high-octane, complete weird-out variety - and, like her siblings and her mother, Frances eventually becomes a parody of herself. She wanders around the park dressed like a lonely cat-lady, and cries in the bath, and disappears for weeks only to return in a flurry of wide-eyed concern. In time she realises that she is desperately attracted to her younger sisters' girlfriend and, well, you know where that kind of sexual revelation can lead. Just imagine the cliche.
Like her brothers and sisters, Frances is still, essentially, a child, tied to her mother's successes and failures, needs and demands. (In an interview I read recently Mendelson joked that she would like to have called the book '50 ways to leave your mother'.) She simply has no idea of what to do with herself, aside from to please her petulant, egotistical relatives and keep on waiting for better days:
Then it occurs to her. What does she want? She cannot tell. She understands 'ought' and 'should' and the subtle arts of delayed gratification, but reading her own heart comes less naturally, if it ever comes at all.
It becomes clear that the novel is about choosing when, and if, to make the break and leave the family unit, only the Rubins are decades behind the usual timeframe. When Leo makes the decision to elope with his mistress he is in his mid-30s and only finally severing the umbilical cord that holds him to the sacred mother. In time, Frances takes a similar trajectory, but the younger siblings react with horror and disbelief:
'So why can't we do what we want, too? Does she have to be, you know, the centre of everything?'
'Yes!' says Em, outraged. 'How can you even say that?'
'But we... aren't we grown-ups?... But don't you want things? Er, you know: affection, outside interes-'
'Are you mad? I don't want a bloody hobby. She's our mother! You can't just treat her like an ordinary person...'
The problem with all of this, the difficulty I have, is that it is simply untenable that four children could have gone away to university; could have gone to work daily; could have lived in the world, and yet continue to be so thoroughly shackled to their mother. It is a pathetic scenario. Aside from Frances, they all still live at home. Without Claudia, they can barely feed themselves. They whine and cry and breakdown at the slightest hint of difficulty or disturbance. They can barely make an emergency phonecall. When Leo runs off, they immediately start to bewail his inevitable death. I find it impossible to believe that such a family, so patently lacking in survival skills, could have been cushioned from breakdown for so long. Honestly. The blurb tells me to expect an 'ordinary' family, experiencing 'ordinary' problems. Instead I find a group of infantilised adults, cloistered like monks in the familial home, and dwelling under a gross illusion. I marvel that the histrionic meltdown took so long. I catch myself viewing the Rubins with distrust, as a gaggle of strawmen who couldn't possibly function outside of the narrative Mendelson has created. They have been set up and manipulated only to be knocked down again.
At this (rather critical) juncture it would be well to say that When We Were Bad does gesture at some deeper themes: what it might mean to be the first woman Rabbi in Britain and how a Jewish family might adapt to this development; the balancing of risk and desire in the modern world; and the increasingly late age at which children become independent. But mostly they're squandered, and any conclusions feel slight and unearned. It is difficult to get away from the fact that the Rubins are too daft to sympathise with. However, there is some success in Mendelson's treatment of the Holocaust. As might be expected in a novel about London's Jews, it is always an elephant in the room, the unmentioned unmentionable that subtly overshadows everything. Sideways allusions to the deaths of extended family members rate amongst the novel's most successful moments, and a picture of Claudia's parents tells a more meaningful story than the central plot:
There is another, older, picture in the corner of the mirror: a family not yet at ease with their foreignness. Here are Gerald Simon, ne Jaroslav Schulz, the handsome charmer with too much Brilliantine, his dead brother's pocket watch casually displayed; Valerie, nee Veronka, wearing a high-necked blouse and an air of chilly withdrawal...
Fundamentally When We Were Bad doesn't know what kind of book it wants to be - the 'fusion' wasn't so successful after all. It is constantly changing key, from farce to satire to earnest pathos; sometimes, all the keynotes are present at once. It has the disconcerting and sickening effect of passifying reader. If you don't know whether you should laugh, or cry, or sigh, or roll your eyes, you end up doing nothing - sitting back, letting the clever prose slide off you, disconnected and increasingly ambivalent. It wasn't that I didn't want to care for Claudia or Leo or Norman or Frances (especially Frances, whose dilemma of sexuality was destined to strike a chord with me) but that the novel wouldn't let me. Just as I would be about to make a connection, just as I was about to decide to fall for them, they would do or say something inane; or Em and Sim would appear; and any reality in their situations would fall away, leaving behind sitcom caricatures.
I dislike the current trend for describing a novel as a 'rollercoaster'. First, I think it's a silly comparison - reading is a relatively leisurely, thoughtful activity that lasts for hours or days or months, and is nothing like the adrenalin-pumped minute and a half of a themepark ride. Second, it's a sure sign of lazy reviewing. Just another way of writing: 'This was an exciting novel. Really exciting. Yeah!' But it occurs to me that reading When We Were Bad *was* a little like my (admittedly limited) experiences of riding rollercoasters: it's all thrill at first, with the initial dips and twists, but then, suddenly, you realise you want to get off. You want to stand on firm ground, and breathe regularly. A little rollercoaster goes a long way.
*This need is now being filled by Rose Tremain's The Road Home, an old-fashioned sort of novel which I admire more with every page.
** Incidentally, the 'baked Alaska' bit? That's a classic Mendelson moment. You're right there with her, right up to the moment when she tips all the laws governing prose and empathy off the cliff.