On Her Own

  • Review
By – March 4, 2024

Lihi Lapid’s nov­el, On Her Own, is a sto­ry of daugh­ters, moth­ers, and grand­moth­ers. Nina, the novel’s teenage pro­tag­o­nist, has run away from home fol­low­ing an argu­ment with her moth­er over a long-held dis­pute about Nina dat­ing an old­er man. On her first night with this old­er man, she wit­ness­es his involve­ment in a mur­der. She runs from him into the arms of Carmela, a woman whose old­er son has died and whose younger son has moved from Israel to the US with his wife and chil­dren. Carmela, who’s los­ing her mem­o­ry and her abil­i­ty to think clear­ly, mis­tak­en­ly believes that Nina, whom she dis­cov­ered in the hall­way of her build­ing, is her grand­daugh­ter, Dana. Tak­ing on this new iden­ti­ty of Dana, Nina devel­ops a rela­tion­ship with Carmela as she seeks shel­ter from oth­er parts of her life.

On Her Own cycles through dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives, fol­low­ing char­ac­ters and their var­i­ous rela­tion­ships. Expect­ed­ly, there’re pas­sages from Carmela’s and Nina’s per­spec­tives, but a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the book focus­es on Iri­na, Nina’s moth­er, an immi­grant from Rus­sia who feels that she’s nev­er been able to offer Nina the life that she want­ed for her. As the nov­el moves between points of view, the read­er gets an in-depth sense of each gen­er­a­tion in the matri­lin­eal line — how, despite the heartache they cause by diverg­ing from each other’s expec­ta­tions, their com­mit­ment to the oth­er always ris­es to the sur­face. In that way, the nov­el is deeply mov­ing, suf­fused with a love that’s stronger than appar­ent betrayal.

Lapid homes in on the con­flicts that can come with an immi­grant par­ent rais­ing a child who was born in the coun­try to which that par­ent has immi­grat­ed. Where­as Iri­na moved to Israel from Rus­sia, and thus lives in a social class below the native-born Israelis, Nina was born in Israel and holds desires that rub up against her mother’s. Ita­mar, Carmela’s son, moved to the US and now feels out of place — he’s one of the few Israelis in his neigh­bor­hood, and he has dif­fi­cul­ty bridg­ing the phys­i­cal and cul­tur­al gap between his moth­er and him­self. Ita­mar feels this divide in the oppo­site direc­tion, too, with his daugh­ter, the real” Dana, who rejects Itamar’s Israeli her­itage and demands he not speak Hebrew to her. In all instances, the par­ents val­ue their native cul­ture; and in try­ing to pass it along — or, from the children’s per­spec­tive, impose it — they meet resis­tance that is both mad­den­ing and deeply understandable.

On Her Owns plot is propul­sive: there’s always the threat that Nina will be found by the old­er man she dat­ed, or that Carmela and oth­ers will learn that Nina is not in fact her grand­daugh­ter. The pres­sure that Nina is under grows even greater as the read­er dis­cov­ers how the sto­ry unfolds on all sides. How­ev­er, as a result of these shifts in point of view, cer­tain rela­tion­ships feel as though they get rushed, lim­it­ing the amount of inti­ma­cy that can be cre­at­ed. But this sense of being rushed appears only in the lat­ter half of the book, when the plot accel­er­ates toward its conclusion.

From start to fin­ish, On Her Own is an engag­ing, illu­mi­nat­ing sto­ry of fam­i­ly and injury. It exam­ines grief, the fal­lac­i­es of wish­ful think­ing, and per­sis­tent hope in a way that many read­ers will find memorable.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

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