Maya Laor, the protagonist of Tammar Stein’s deeply moving debut novel. Light Years (Knopf, $15.95) is not your typical college freshman, and Light Years is not your typical young adult novel. Maya sets herself apart from her new classmates at the University of Virginia in every way—she is foreign; she is older, having served in the Israeli army before college; and she is carrying a burden of sorrow and guilt that she clutches to herself like a security blanket.
In alternating chapters, Maya tells the story of her life in Virginia and of the life she had known in Israel. Maya, we soon learn, left Tel Aviv after her boyfriend Dov was killed by a suicide bomber in a downtown cafe, and in her life in Virginia she tries desperately to separate herself from this tragedy. But the narrative reaches further into Maya’s past, to the story of her entering the Israeli army, where she met Dov; of her leaving the comfort of her family home in Haifa for an army post in Tel Aviv; of her dream, even before Dov’s death, to study abroad. Despite Maya’s desire to leave Israel, the depiction of Israeli culture in this story is warm and realistic, honest about the hardships but also evocative of the special beauty of life in Israel. Maya, in Virginia, is homesick for her friends and family in Haifa, and struggles to acclimate to her new environment: “Israel never got much rain. It seemed like it got less and less each year. I associated the sound of rain— dripping from gutters and branches, plopping into puddles—with good things, good news. Though it was slightly disconcerting to have so much of a good thing now.” In adjusting to her life in Virginia, Maya’s greatest difficulty is overcoming her guilt. Because of a previous encounter with the bomber, Maya holds herself responsible for Dov’s death, and has to forgive herself before she can truly move on. This bit of plotting is one of the book’s few missteps— survivor guilt would have been sufficient to drive Maya’s need to run, without introducing this complication. Nonetheless, Maya’s world—her emotions, her fears, her grief—captivate the reader. The book shies away from political pronouncements; it is a beautiful telling of the story of one Israeli, and a realistic picture of a young woman’s life in contemporary Israel.
Rahel Lerner is a book editor in New York.