In her upcoming novel, The Sweetness, Sande Boritz Berger looks at the impact of World War II and the Holocaust on a Jewish family living in New York. It is a novel of coming to terms with tragedy and the scars of war but more so it is a novel dealing with the challenges faced by the second generation. How did that war impact those whose parents managed to escape before trouble came, who were born in America but are raised by those who remember a very different way of life? How does the memory of family survive when war sets out to break them and where should the line be drawn when it comes to parental interference in their children’s lives? How can we tell whether we’ll regret letting go of something while there’s still time to do something about it?
Much of the novel centers on Mira Kane and her extended family. Living with her parents, brother, and her father’s two sisters and brother, Mira has dreams of becoming a fashion designer and escaping from the family business: a factory where they produce knitwear for the likes of Macy’s, Sears, and JC Penny. But the developing war in Europe and the threat posed to her father’s mother, younger brother, and family back in their homeland put additional pressure on Mira to put those dreams on hold indefinitely. With brief glimpses at the branch of their family now stuck under Nazi control, told through the eyes of Mira’s young cousin, Rosha, the distant threats and fears are contrasted with the harsher realities of living and surviving under the regime itself.
The novel wasn’t particularly complex but it was the simplicity that let it speak so clearly. It felt like it was as much a character study as a novel. The way the family members play and subtly, gently, manipulate one another is entirely relatable, and I’m not saying ‘manipulate’ in a bad way. Its something everyone does to a degree and it’s refreshing to see it portrayed in a way that isn’t contrived and just for the sake of creating drama but is completely realistic. There were some characters perspectives I would have liked to have (mostly Ina) or whose perspectives I wanted more of and earlier in the novel (Rena and Nathan).
Perhaps the most haunting account in the novel is not that of Rosha, but of her aunt, Jeanette “JJ” Kane. Having suffered first hand from the prejudices and fear that were feeding the Nazi party’s rise, JJ and her sister joined two of their brothers in America before many of the atrocities documented by history took place. But that earlier experience tied her to the sufferings of those left behind in a way that struck her deeper than her other siblings.
I think that the timeline of events could have been handled a little better. There were some events mentioned to help orient the reader as far as when the events of the characters’ lives were taking place but those markers didn’t seem to carry over when it came to the sporadic glimpses of Rosha and what was going on in Vilna. I can see an argument made for this being intentional, meant to reflect, in particular, the difficulties children have gauging the passage of time. Given how much time ultimately passes, there should be a greater growth in the characterization of Rosha as a child; the amount that children can grasp increases drastically in a few short years. But that might just be me nitpicking because it was a part of the story I would have liked to see more of anyway.
The Sweetness will be available for purchase in stores September 23, 2014.