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How Do People Connect?

Lore Segal’s Shakespeare’s Kitchen (New Press, $22.95) revisits many themes from the author’s previous novels. The immigrant experience, the joys of language and the difficulties of communication all find new and powerful expression in the 13 interrelated stories in Segal’s longawaited third work of adult fiction (she is also the author of the popular children’s tales Tell Me a Mitzi).

The stories here follow Ilka Weisz as she accepts a position at the Concordance Institute, a think tank in Connecticut. Ilka is obviously connected to Ilka Weissnix, the protagonist of Segal’s novel Her First American, but Shakespeare’s Kitchen universalizes aspects of the European immigrant experience. Like Segal herself, who at the age of 10 was rescued from Vienna on the Kindertransport, both Ilkas fled Nazi Europe as children. However, Ilka Weisz’s Viennese roots are downplayed; she is not emigrating from Europe to American; rather, she is a “refugee from New York” who moves to Concordance. Ilka’s search for “elective cousins” because she is “low on the kind one has by blood” serves simultaneously as a metaphor for the immigrant’s struggle to regain lost friends and relatives and the universal human need for community.

In the author’s note, Segal places “our need not only for family and sexual love and friendship but for a ‘set’ to belong to: the circle made of friends, acquaintances, and the people one knows,” as the main theme of her book. Indeed, Ilka’s sexual life and her family play second-fiddle to her Concordance “set” — a community that revolves around the eponymous Shakespeares: Leslie Shakespeare, the director of the Institute, and his wife, Eliza. Segal is most interested in how such sets are formed — how people meet and how they become intimates.

The importance of language and talking unites the stories. Ilka falls in love with the conversations that take place in the Shakespeares’ kitchen, and the Shakespeares are taken by the theories and observations Ilka contributes. But even language is sometimes undermined. In “Reverse Bug,” one of the most affecting stories in the collection and winner of the O. Henry prize, the institute’s Genocide Project Symposium is interrupted by the sound of human screams, which have been built into the acoustic wiring of the theater. All members of the Concordance community are forced to hear the sounds of torture they know to be happening 24 hours a day out of their earshot. Both Ilka and Paulino, a Concordance student who is the son of a Nazi, claim that the screams belong to their fathers.

The incessant howling recurs in a number of the stories. Segal is powerful in describing this breakdown of words as it plays out, for instance, in the pain of a family member’s disappearance. Along with a rich and psychologically astute exploration of the dynamics of friendship, Shakespeare’s Kitchen also provides a poignant juxtaposition of articulate communication and the wounded, raging scream that haunts us long after we turn the last page.

Tamar Weinstock, a former Lilith intern, is a student at Cornell University.