Off to Join the Circus

  • Review
By – September 18, 2023

Although it’s set in 2018, Off to Join the Cir­cus bor­rows its title from a phrase that is pret­ty much extinct in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. Deb­o­rah Kalb’s nov­el is about the Pin­sky fam­i­ly, and it’s one of those rare books that skill­ful­ly inter­weaves mul­ti­ple points of view. With the excep­tion of Aunt Adele, who ran away at age six­teen in 1954, each mem­ber of the fam­i­ly gets a whole chap­ter to tell his or her sto­ry. When Adele’s broth­er Howard asked their griev­ing par­ents where she went, they told him that she ran off to join the cir­cus” — an expla­na­tion that was used at a time when cir­cus­es still came to town and had a place in Amer­i­can cul­ture. It was a metaphor for escap­ing to a com­plete­ly new life. Now, the Pin­skys use the word to describe an irre­spon­si­ble, impul­sive style, the kind that Aunt Adele betrayed.

Six­ty-four years after her dis­ap­pear­ance, Adele sud­den­ly returns. Even as she elbows her way into Howie’s fam­i­ly, she remains an out­sider who nev­er real­ly reveals what she was doing dur­ing her absent years. Each of the Pin­skys reacts to her and changes in sub­tle ways, thanks to her force­ful, ego­tis­ti­cal temperament.

Liv­ing com­fort­ably in the D.C. sub­urbs, the Pin­skys are a Jew­ish fam­i­ly whose obses­sive close­ness and love serve as an obvi­ous con­trast to Adele’s his­to­ry of aban­don­ment. The old­est of the three adult daugh­ters spends years as a sin­gle moth­er, depen­dent on the help of her will­ing par­ents. The youngest teach­es at the school her nephews attend. The mid­dle daugh­ter is the only one who fits the fam­i­ly def­i­n­i­tion of cir­cus,” in that she led a wild youth and con­tin­ues to be care­less and imprac­ti­cal. But her place in this ador­ing fam­i­ly is secure nonethe­less. Read­ers will rec­og­nize the dif­fer­ence between Howie’s wife, who is laser-focused on her chil­dren, and Adele’s own breezy self-involvement.

The Pin­skys are firm­ly ground­ed in the twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, using cell­phones, doing yoga, and watch­ing Rachel Mad­dow. Their con­ver­sa­tions are very Jew­ish: they dis­cuss bar mitz­vahs past and present, a pos­si­ble bris, and Sat­ur­day shop­ping with non-Jew­ish spous­es. Adele’s abrupt return to Howie may be the novel’s incit­ing inci­dent, but the real sto­ry is how the fam­i­ly func­tions — first with­out her, and then with her.

Beth Dwoskin is a retired librar­i­an with exper­tise in Yid­dish lit­er­a­ture and Jew­ish folk music.

Discussion Questions