The Family Markowitz

Author: Allegra Goodman
Published: 1996
Website: Wikipedia Page

I decided to take a risk with this book, venturing into a genre I rarely touch: the novel. Admittedly, The Family Markowitz is a series of short stories more than a novel, but it is not historical fiction, or fantasy, or science fiction. It is a gentler form of writing, without obvious climaxes or suspenseful cliffhangers to forcefully guide the story in a particular direction. That gentleness is put to good use by Goodman as she purposefully strings together somewhat offset anecdotes into a whole.

Because of the success of the book, much has been said about it as a whole, about what it has to say about the modern Jewish-American family, or about academia, or loyalty, or happiness, but the work is really at its best analyzed through the lens of what it does for each character. Though I grew up in a Jewish-American family, full to bursting with crotchety academics and neuroses, I actually found myself able to relate to most of the characters only as a spectator, letting each event happen in turn. Except when it came to Miriam, the young, ambitious medical student who turns to observant Judaism, to the chagrin and confusion of her parents.

This was a girl I could understand. A bright, talented child, burdened with the responsibility of being the oldest, but fully capable of bearing it, goes into the heavily romanticized world of medicine and finds it lacking in warmth or meaning. So she turns to religion, ritual, praxis, community and God to find what is missing, and discovers that in going through this highly personal, hopefully transcendent journey, she has left her family far on the other side. Instead of exploring the sadness of change, the difficulty in turning away from practice without repudiating its source and the effects of age and generation, Goodman understands Miriam to only see the gaping chasm of meaning and commitment between her and her family. Miriam’s response is to become belligerent and critical, because to her, the path has become too obvious. That approach, which appears to be characteristic of Goodman’s writing, keeps the powerful emotions from, as Ed would say, stewing in their own juices.

The tragedy, of course, is that Miriam’s increasing frustration at her family’s cluelessness is so deeply sincere, even as it tears at her mother, who is suffering from her own feelings of inadequacy already, and her father, whose role as a patriarch is buffeted this way and that from the changing relationships he has with his brother and mother, and now his eldest daughter, who rejects even his treasured place at the head of the Passover table. And then she gets married, and it is certain that the stories that could be told about her new life would ring just as painfully with all the foibles of family.


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