• Review
By – September 11, 2023

If Emile Zola had writ­ten about twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry Sul­li­van Coun­ty, New York, instead of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Paris, his explo­ration of char­ac­ter might have resem­bled Sara Lippmann’s in Lech. Set against a back­ground of finan­cial inse­cu­ri­ty, drug abuse, and emo­tion­al des­per­a­tion, the nov­el fol­lows Ira Lech­er, the aging son of Holo­caust sur­vivors. His name alludes to the bib­li­cal com­mand­ment lech lecha,” in which God instructs Abram/​Abraham to go forth on his jour­ney toward a new land. Ira does not go forth so much as back-and-forth, from Man­hat­tan to his sum­mer home upstate, and between a series of flawed rela­tion­ships. His life inter­sects with those of oth­er res­i­dents, both Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish, and they all strug­gle with the pre­car­i­ous bal­ance between sur­vival and loss.

The char­ac­ters in the nov­el are incred­i­bly vivid. Noreen, a mid­dle-aged woman with a flex­i­ble under­stand­ing of moral­i­ty, steals mon­ey and cred­it cards while prac­tic­ing her pro­fes­sion of bro­ker­ing deals for prop­er­ty. Noreen’s daugh­ter Paige has a sub­stance-abuse prob­lem, and plans to flee Sul­li­van Coun­ty for the promised land of Flori­da. Beth, the young moth­er of a phys­i­cal­ly frag­ile four-year-old son, has fled Man­hat­tan and a hus­band who is nor­mal to the point of strange.” Her chaot­ic and self-destruc­tive rela­tion­ships dis­tance her from the rigid­ly defined life of the Ortho­dox women around her, yet she is nev­er­the­less fas­ci­nat­ed by the sense of belong­ing she observes with­in their closed cir­cle. Even the New Jer­sey ceme­tery where Ira vis­its his par­ents’ graves serves as a kind of char­ac­ter, a Vegas-like strip of mor­bid­i­ty off the Pal­isades.” The places that peo­ple call home even­tu­al­ly define them, in spite of their attempts to reori­ent the direc­tions their lives take.

At first, the Hasidic com­mu­ni­ty that Lipp­mann rep­re­sents appears to be almost com­plete­ly iso­lat­ed from the sec­u­lar, but she reveals this to be a false dichoto­my. One of the most com­pelling char­ac­ters is Tzvi, whose moth­er was killed in a mys­te­ri­ous mur­der. Tzvi main­tains an ambiva­lent con­nec­tion to Ortho­doxy while pro­vid­ing ille­gal sub­stances to his fel­low Hasidim — a job that requires him to inter­act with non-Jews as well. Tak­ing advan­tage of human vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, he suf­fers from the same con­straints as every­one else, and hopes to find an exit. The bar­ri­ers with­in the Jew­ish world, it seems, are just as per­me­able as those outside.

Lippmann’s char­ac­ters are trag­i­cal­ly flawed, caught in a world of dehu­man­iz­ing para­me­ters. Through skill­ful pac­ing and sharp lan­guage, her work grants some dig­ni­ty to their hap­haz­ard attempts at change.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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