Mothers, Daughters, Feminists: Spring Books Look at Complex Relationships

The Wholeness of a Broken Heart by Katie Singer Penguin Putnam, $14

In her compelling new novel, Katie Singer introduces us to writer/ poet/teacher Hannah Fried. We follow Hannah through much of her twenties, first in Ann Arbor, and then for several years in Boston. Hannah successfully teaches at a woman’s creative writing center A bit of a loner, she concentrates on her art and her work. As the novel unfolds we gain insights into Hannah’s major dilemma: her struggle to understand why, inexplicably, Hannah’s mother Celia has consciously chosen to estrange herself from her daughter. Whether Hannah and Celia will be able to resolve the breach in their relationship is the engine driving this novel’s formidable energy. An early chapter—about an abortion in the 1920’s— first appeared in LILITH.

Though set in the contemporary world, Singer brings the past alive as she intersperses chapters that are devoted to Hannah with the voices not only of Hannah’s mother, and maternal grandmother, but also her maternal great-grandmothers, and other key figures from the past. Singer does this with great simplicity; we are effortlessly transported to the Yiddish speaking worlds of Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century, early 20th century New York and Cleveland, as well as Europe and America during the Holocaust. Throughout the book, many characters revert to Yiddish to express their inner thoughts. Indeed the title of the book is based on the Yiddish proverb: Es iz nito a gantsere zakh vi a tsehrokhn harts — There’s nothing more whole than a broken heart.

Singer addresses a variety of difficult social and familial issues with extraordinary sensitivity. These include child molestation; suicide; abortion; the effects of divorce; sexual abuse during the Holocaust; serious family estrangement; and a loveless marriage which continues because, as was the case until recent times, divorce was unfeasible economically for a woman, and especially a woman with children.

Hannah Fried, though not without flaws, is perceptive, bright and articulate. Her affection for, and warm relationship with her aging grandmother, Ida, is touching and mutual. At one point Ida tells Hannah: “Move on…you’ve spent enough time trying to change this situation… and it hasn’t changed. So, maybe it’s time to accept it. Lekh lekha, Hannah… Go to yourself.” It is sage advice.

Singer expertly relates the stories of these multiple generations. And while much of the action takes place between women, the male voices also ring true. This superb tale of estrangement, love, and the triumph of goodness breaks our hearts and then makes them whole again.