Elisa Albert’s debut story collection, How This Night Is Different (Free Press, $18.00), is peopled with smart, self-aware Jewish women in their 20s and 30s. In the title story, Joanna— unmarried at 31, with a non-Jewish boyfriend to boot—returns to her family for their annual Passover seder. As the preparations build into a frenzy, Albert keenly asks “Wasn’t it a given for adult children to fall immediately back into their preordained roles within the family upon returning home?” Joanna, frozen in time as her family’s child until she produces one to relieve her, expects to be infantilized. She braces herself for the indignity of singing the child’s traditional four questions, for their “bogus traditional wonderment.” Surprisingly, she is more understood than she expected; this night is indeed different.
In another story, a college girl, feeling the ache of her recent abortion on Yom Kippur of her freshman year, searches through her High Holiday prayer book for the words to process her regret. Albert looks for new uses for tired words. A Jewish youth-group loner in “The Living” scribbles in her not-quite-good-enough journal, tearing out pages as they fail to live up to the jaunty, adventurous and all-encompassing work that she imagines such a record could be. Debra, the recent college graduate of “When You Say You’re a Jew,” is intent on re-telling her adventures overseas in a more compelling, meaningful way: “But perhaps in molding this story into an anecdote, Debra will modify it so that the woman who answers the door appears at first to have a fantastical halo of light around her head, which, after a beat, Debra sees is just the overhead light in the entry hall of the house. Perhaps she will say she could see from the door two candles in old silver candlesticks, burning in the window.”
Overall, this funny, provocative work richly expresses the questions that linger after a bad Hebrew school and good university education. Introspective and irreverent, Albert’s heroines approach Passover seders, wedding” preparations, shiva visits, and circumcisions with skepticism and a beguiling seriousness. Even if Elisa Albert had not chosen to end her collection with a love letter to Philip Roth, one could read her audacious debut as just that.
Liz Kilstein works for the Institute of International Education in Washington, DC