Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25
The amazing thing about this engaging debut novel by feminist organizer, Ms magazine co-founder, spokesperson for progressive Jewish causes and author of the popular autobiography Deborah Golda and Me is that it reads as if written for us. The “us” in this case being Jewish feminists. The book’s plot lines rework as fiction many incidents plumbed in Pogrebin’s autobiography and some of her other writing: her mother’s early death, her father’s distance, the earth shattering destabilization of having family secrets revealed to her without preparation, an ongoing struggle with Judaism. Her feminist political roots show too—at least one of the characters could be living in a roman a clef about the women’s movement. But paradoxically, the novel’s very familiarity— of plots and setting and even of character—is one of its delights. Pogrebin has given us an authentic Jewish feminist novel without a glossary, with the reassuring opinion that we need none. She assumes that her ideal readers will get it all: the names she drops—whether of feminist causes and leaders or of well known- only-in-certain circles Jewish men like Leibl (sic) Fein and Ismar Schorsch—the political rallies, the Yiddish phrases and Talmudic aphorisms.
The three women of the title are half sisters, each from a different coupling. The only parental character still around is the aging rabbi who fathered two of them. He is adored by the youngest daughter, respected by his stepdaughter (Rachel, the suburbanite who studies Judaism seriously even as she creates a perfect castle for her family and runs her needlepoint business on the side) and reviled by the biological child he abandoned when she was in her early teens. No sense in giving away the twists and turns here. You just need to know that from the novel’s opening scene (the youngest, Shoshanna Safer, a consultant on how to be organized, loses all the pages out of her filofax on the Henry Hudson Parkway) to the final ones in a darkened synagogue classroom (sister Leah, the fearless feminist ideologue, learns her truths), you’ll be embedded in the history both of a complex family and of the women’s movement. Sit still and feel the reverberations on this sympathetic trio.