Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Replacement Life : Mom & Me Review

Get it at Amazon or Indiebound using these links.
This week "Mom & Me" review a novel that hit the front page of the NYTimes Review of Books on Sunday.  It's entitled A Replacement Life and its author, Boris Fishman, is there compared to Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and Bernard Malamud in a review that features laud after laud after laud for this debut work.

And for once, "Mom & Me" disagree.

Here's her take:
Slava Gelman is employed by a respected magazine in New York City. He tries very hard to get his work published. He has a girl friend who works in the adjacent cubicle. He is the grandson of Russian Jews from Minsk who immigrate to the US—this is the background for the story as it becomes entangled with ties from the Old World and the New, with family, and with Slava’s need to succeed.
We understand Slava’s dilemma as his decidedly rascally and opportunistic grandfather suggests he, the writer, forge Holocaust restitution claims for Russian Jews (who were not Holocaust survivors but had indeed lived through terrible privations during World War II and served in the war but who hadn’t been imprisoned).  Slava needs to decide how to deal with his grandfather, with the issues, and ultimately, the consequences if he accepts the task. “Slava wasn’t a judge: He was a middleman, a loan shark, an alchemist—he turned lies into facts, words into money, silence into knowledge at last.” (160)
A Replacement Life is full of beautiful writing. Here’s one of my favorite passages, especially appealing if you love New York:  “She took his hand and they tiptoed into the cold black water. Slava had been staring at the river from the edge of his neighborhood for years, but this was his first step inside the water that bordered New York on all sides. When you thought about it, it was as waterbound as a Venice, or an Amsterdam, but here, this natural boundary had been reduced to a sideshow. You did not think of New York as a water city. What if the water rose, as the scientists kept saying now and then. What would go first? What would be carried away, and what would rise in its place? The thought of a different city, a city he could have a hand in, made him excited and gave him the boldness to wade deeper into the impenetrable ocean.”  (238-239)
Reading A Replacement Life, in a way, reminded me of M.L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans.  We watch as both writers take (somewhat) ordinary individuals and observe how the moral dilemmas of their lives unfold. We relate to them as like us in many ways. We try to do good, to be kind, to be ethical, but sometimes we falter. And with good reason, or so we think…
I suspect that mine will be a minority opinion among readers of A Replacement Life, but here's my truth:  I feel as though the NYTimes reviewer and my mom read an entirely different novel than I did.  Where Patricia T. O'Connor (and Mom) saw its protagonist, Slava, as "an honorable man who finds that one broken rule, one risky move, changes his life irrevocably", I saw a hapless, ineffectual, morally-vacillating loser who was quickly persuaded to commit not just one act of fraudulence, but many, simply to gratify his ego.  I wasn't as enamored of Mr. Fishman's prose style as the other two were either, so we will have to disagree on those two major elements.  Needless to say, these contrasting perceptions colored our respective views of this novel.

On the up side, some of Mr. Fishman's descriptive passages brought me back to the Manhattan and Brooklyn of my youth, Slava's careful and apt parsing of New Yorker-esque writing style elicited hearty chuckles, and (SPOILER ALERT) two later chapters in which Slava develops a mutually enriching relationship with one of his elderly clients redeemed the entire novel for me.

I must add that, when all is said and done, I would certainly sample Mr. Fishman's next novel to see how his work is evolving, because I found his prose and perspective quite engaging in  non-fiction articles and FB posts I found as I researched for this review A case in point: this guest post about autobiographical fiction on Book Club Girl via his website.  Funny, insightful, and in all ways worth reading.  (So do!)

If you'd like to try A Replacement Life for yourself to see who's right, Mom and Ms. O'Connor or me, just purchase a copy of this novel via the links under the cover image above.  But why not visit Boris Fishman's FB page first:  he's quite witty and winning in his short missives there, and on his website too.

You might also want to visit a few more blogs on this tour to experience some alternate views. Here's the link: TLC A Replacement Life Book Tour.

As always, I'm grateful to sample a variety of novels and non-fiction books via TLC Book Tours.

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