“The first time I saw Dad after he was born again was in Jerusalem, where Susan and I went to bring him home.” So begins Risa Miller’s light and fast-paced second novel, My Before and After Life (St. Martin’s, $24.99), where issues of family ties and fervent religiousness come together in the streets of Jerusalem and suburban Boston. Our narrator, Honey, is a lawyer living in the very Jewish suburb of Brookline, litigating against an Orthodox school’s expansion in the neighborhood; her sister Susan owns a local seafood restaurant. Into the lives of these two stereotypically secular sisters comes the revelation: their widowed and remarried father has become a “born again” religious Jew, as they describe him, and has moved to Jerusalem.
My Before and After Life opens with the delightful jaunt of these two cranky sisters into their father and stepmother’s sun-filled Jerusalem apartment and fundamentalist life. The novel is at its brightest when the sisters wander through the Holy Land with “Dad and Evelyn,” visiting the Western Wall (or “Kosel”) and encountering spirituality in Safed. As Honey muses at the Western Wall: “I touched the stone — creamy smooth and worn, like sea glass. I hadn’t thought for a minute that I’d feel magic jolts, and I was right.” Beneath the surface — or sometimes bubbling up — lies the memory of their deceased mother, Rachel, in whose honor their father wishes to endow a religious girls’ school. With a bit of a heavy hand, Miller shows us Honey’s continued grief and bafflement at their father’s new path, even as she is enthralled by their new surroundings.
The novel is at its strongest when the sisters are in Israel — when they return stateside, it loses some of its focus. I found it hard to sympathize with Honey’s rancor at the Orthodox incursion into her neighborhood. While the character of Susan is less clearly written than Honey’s, some of the novel’s most pleasurable moments are the descriptions of food in Susan’s very treyf restaurant. “I watched Mom carve up the salad with a knife and fork and eat the salad in parts: croutons first, then anchovies, then the romaine, as if a person had the power to make the parts into a whole.” Miller intersperses Honey’s narration with brief forays into an undetermined present time: the novel’s frame is left purposely vague until the end, where the pieces come together in a surprisingly poignant conclusion.
Honey’s sardonically self-aware tone brings her character alive, and any Jerusalemites or Bostonians (I am both) will appreciate the note-perfect descriptions of streets and atmosphere. My Before and After Life is a set piece for readers in search of a captivating book for vacation or a quiet weekend.
Sara N. S. Meirowitz is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, as well as a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Massachusetts.