Written by: Michelle Brafman
Published by:Prospect Park Books; (September 6, 2016)
No. of pages: 264 pages
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
Bertrand Court is the second Brafman book reviewed on this blog. In April of 2015, we discussed Brafman’s debut novel, Washing the Dead, and noted how gently she led her readers into a foreign world, plying them with cookies and everyday worries about children until they found themselves at home with Americans who chose their daughters’ husbands for them and mourn for decades if they fall out of favor with the rabbi’s wife. Bertrand Court is a series of interlocking short stories that inhabit more familiar ground — middle class suburbia. Most, though not all, of the characters are Jewish, and their energies are focused on their marriages, their children, long ago lovers, and careers that often haven’t turned out quite as they had wished. Still, Brafman handles their lives with the same deft and respectful touch. She makes the familiar fascinating, just as she previously made the exotic familiar.
Bad news comes quietly in Bertrand Court. It can be the moment that a woman notices her sister-in-law watching a bit too carefully when their daughters play together. We soon learn that one of the girls is rapidly becoming an outcast because of her cruelty — and that her mortified mother is both too uncertain and too admiring to stop her. In another page, it is a different mother who is thinking: My limbs feel heavy, and my eyes burn. I want to hug my daughter, but I can’t face her turning away again. Pain ripples through the generations in a family that loves but operates primarily in terms of crushing one another’s spirits, or allowing themselves to be crushed in turn.
In another story, Tad, a man who works on Capital Hill, reflects on his fading career. People don’t listen to me like they used to. I even caught an intern, a little sorority girl from the University of Alabama, playing Sudoku while I led a staff meeting. This just didn’t happen when I worked four offices down from the President. The anger I numb daily with exercise is pitching a tent in my gullet like a Bedouin in a sandstorm. In the hands of a different author, such a character would be the object of contempt. Actually, Tad is a bit contemptible, but he is so aware of how far the world has slipped beyond his control that we sympathize with him when he thinks: Ever since my career went on life support, Nikki’s been sneaking my Harvard degree into conversations, or as he reflects that he’s become an underachiever whose arrogance unsuccessfully masks his “I got picked last for kickball” disappointment in life.
What makes this story especially engrossing is the fact that we have just learned Nikki’s story, and we understand exactly how the choices of her youth led her to Tad. In the next story we get a good look at the life of their friend Georgina who has seemed so professionally successful, so beyond the sad compromises of their own marriage. Nikki and Tad might not fear Georgia’s unspoken judgments quite so much if they knew that her younger lover’s friends refer to her as that woman who does your laundry.
Similarly, in the side by side tales of two sisters, we see the hurt of caring for and supporting a woman who responds with small, wordless insults rather than thanks. Then we feel the humiliation of always being the woman who needs to have somebody else’s money slipped into her purse. Still, the two women are bound to one another by their love and resentment, and perhaps most of all simply by the fact that they have known one another all their lives. In old age, the elder sister does not look inward to contemplate the end of life. She looks outward at her sister. The tarnished silver, Heidi the help’s dreck on the counter, the knee-highs falling down Goldie’s bony white legs — it all reminded Sylvia of a darkened movie set after all the actors had returned to their regular lives, the props too worn to recycle.
The quiet, carefully observed moments in this collection reverberate through one another’s worlds in ways that are unexpected and profound. We get a sense of the sweep of this collection in the opening story, SHHH, which is narrated by Baby #5, a fetus in a woman who has had a devastating string of miscarriages. As Jewish folklore promises, the archangel Michael has spoken to the unborn baby, and told him the secrets of the universe, from the language of the pelicans and the dolphins to his father’s theft of a Playboy from his bar mitzvah tutor’s briefcase. Baby #5 witnesses an afternoon of his parents’ worried squabbling and small betrayals. He sees their fragility and wishes he could reassure them about their future. He can’t, though. Instead, his brief, uneasy existence serves to remind the reader that the hopeful deeds of ordinary people are the stuff of life and death.