A new novel from Nessa Rapoport, 30 years after her debut novel Preparing for Sabbath, is both deeply Jewish and (wait for it) deeply Canadian. There’s very little feminist fiction worthy of this claim.
The taut story of Evening (Counterpoint Press, $26) centers on two sisters, one marking the shiva of the other in their family’s home in Toronto. Eve, the survivor, fled the chilly (in every sense), WAS Py Ontario city to find her way in New York, very slowly completing a Ph.D. dissertation and teaching at a community college (“night school” a relative calls it), and carrying on a deliberately distanced relationship with an academic so brilliant that he wasn’t even bullied at the British boarding school where his English Jewish parents sent him at age seven.
Eve returns home to observe the seven-day ritual mourning period for her sister, Tam. For the week that’s the span of the novel, the household also includes Eve’s divorced parents, her remarkably accomplished grandmother, Nana, and a constellation of characters mostly spinning out from the tight circles of Eve’s childhood and adolescence. Prominent among these is her ages-ago boyfriend Laurie, whose presence at the shiva pulls Eve into a magnetic field that’s simultaneously charged, familiar, stifling and alluring. An old ad for tourism to Canada described Quebec, the province just east of Ontario, as “friendly, familiar, foreign and near.” That line came to mind as an apt description both for Laurie and for Simon, that quiet, witty, genius professor Eve has been keeping at arm’s length for three years in New York.
The interplay between the lives of the sisters is at the core of this brief novel. Tam had been a determined, high earning, famous-in-Canada television personality, happily married with two young children. (“All the things Jewish parents revere,” Rapoport commented to Lilith in a recent Zoom call.) The cancer that ravaged Tam’s body and took her life moved slowly enough that she had time for a deathbed argument with Eve about their seemingly very different paths, an exchange so fierce that, despite their decades of sisterly closeness and understanding, there was no emotional space left in which Eve could reach out to connect again before Tam died.
None of this is a spoiler, nor is the fact that after the funeral Tam’s husband hands Eve a sealed message from Tam; even the book’s advance publicity leaks this much. The single cryptic sentence in that envelope hints that Tam’s life hadn’t been quite the carefully mapped journey Eve had always considered the obverse of her own uncharted, halting career and love life.
Rapoport’s carefully told story is about the power of family role models we emulate or resist whether we understand them accurately or not—including Nana’s own remarkable life as a Jewish woman in an Anglo-Saxon stronghold, a woman with a Ph.D. in science, a pilot’s license, a passionate attachment to her late husband and a lifelong aptitude for self-definition.
Susan Weidman Schneider
To hear more about the ideas motivating its author to spend 30 years crafting Evening, Naomi Danis and Susan Weidman Schneider invited Nessa Rapoport, herself the oldest of four sisters, for a Zoom chat along with her daughter Mattie Kahn, culture director at Glamour. Here are some highlights from that conversation.
Nessa: There’s a culture and a chemistry in a family of daughters… In the book, I wanted these two sisters to have lives of both sensuality and intellect. I also wanted to show, through Tam, the working life of successful women—that world of accomplishment and fame. Yet Tam was limited, despite her success.
I’ve been told that in AA there’s a saying, “Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.” The family’s assumption was that Eve would envy her sister, and I knew from the beginning that she didn’t. Actually, Tam had a lot to envy in Eve. I wanted to reveal the complex interior lives of these sisters, not that Tam’s the accomplished one and Eve’s the blurry one.
Naomi: Your book title, Evening, evokes the evening of the score between two competitive sisters and also as the end of a day (and more poignantly the end of a life), as well as the character Eve’s becoming herself.
Nessa: You saw all three meanings of the title!
Mattie: Mom, your opening sentence says: “One loves, the other is loved.” I found that very provocative.
Nessa: You can still find relationships— whatever the power dynamic— where that is the operating assumption. In the end, the book is a refutation of the opening line. Eve’s myths about her family are all upended. And Simon becomes a real human being, which is, to Eve, unsettling.
Susan: The women in this novel are already real. You describe your own grandmother in your memoir, House on the River: A Summer Journey. She bears a close resemblance to Nana in Evening. Deliberate?
Nessa: My maternal clan was a unique amalgam of being practicing, committed Jews and Anglo-Saxon Canadians. My grandmother had a patrician pity for people who didn’t see that you could be observant and also be anything you wanted to be in the world. She and my grandfather invented this confident, unparochial way of being Jewish in the 1930s, a great act of audacity at a time when Canada was extremely anti-Semitic. In everything I write, there’s a grandmother who was a pioneer professionally and Jewishly.
Susan: You once wrote the script for a short film about the ritual of not leaving the house for a full week of mourning, and Evening’s framework is a shiva. Why?
Nessa: For a while, while I was writing Evening, I thought a lot about loss and trauma. I keep on my bedside table a copy of Judith Herman’s stunning book, Trauma and Recovery. Trauma limits your emotional range. It’s a very physical, limbic state. Grief, too, lives in the body. I’m now in my 60s, and I understand that our relationship with the people who have died continues. We are not who we were when they left us. We gain amplitude and insight; we can see and change even what seems to be fixed in the past..