Prayers for the Living

  • Review
By – February 26, 2015

Alan Cheuse’s Prayers for the Liv­ing is a fam­i­ly dra­ma told by omni­scient nar­ra­tor and grand­moth­er Min­nie Bloch, whose family’s sto­ry is filled with tragedy and unful­filled dreams. While her fam­i­ly strug­gles, she is thank­ful for her own life and knows that things could always be worse, and Minnie’s Yid­dish-infused lan­guage and men­tal­i­ty add light­heart­ed­ness to her family’s sit­u­a­tion. Her son Manny’s Amer­i­can Dream of try­ing to become a suc­cess­ful rab­bi is a mode of repen­tance for his father’s sec­u­lar­ism, which is believed to have got­ten his father killed. Manny’s father’s death was a life-chang­ing moment for both Min­nie and Man­ny, and through­out many events in the nov­el, images of the father’s death — par­tic­u­lar­ly a six-point­ed star of glass from a bro­ken bot­tle — appear as reminders of how frag­ile life is amidst the strug­gle to be suc­cess­ful as Amer­i­can immigrants.

After grap­pling with Manny’s wife Maby’s alco­holism, which is part­ly caused by her trou­bling long-buried secrets, Man­ny begins an affair with a Holo­caust sur­vivor at a time when Maby and their daugh­ter Sarah need his love and sup­port the most. Since the nov­el is nar­rat­ed by Min­nie, Manny’s affair — as well as oth­er pri­vate moments that oth­er char­ac­ters’ expe­ri­ence — is often sto­ical­ly brushed over to focus on the dam­age that such events are most like­ly cre­at­ing for the fam­i­ly. Man­ny seems to want to help his fam­i­ly at times, but he doesn’t put as much effort into being a good father and hus­band as he does to his side busi­ness, which ends up caus­ing more trou­ble for him than he ever imag­ined. Min­nie reveals the spi­ral­ing down­ward fall of her family’s hap­pi­ness, as Sarah’s sit­u­a­tion in col­lege seems to include hor­rors sim­i­lar to what her moth­er Maby endured dur­ing her youth.

Min­nie is able to tell the indi­vid­ual sto­ries of her fam­i­ly by lis­ten­ing in on their con­ver­sa­tions, read­ing let­ters or diaries, and her mater­nal sense of sim­ply know­ing what is going on, but the read­er is often left won­der­ing whether or not to trust Minnie’s per­spec­tive. Prayers for the Liv­ing is basi­cal­ly Minnie’s exten­sive mono­logue: while she shares her sto­ry with her grand­moth­er­ly friends, she rarely paus­es to allow them a chance to ask a ques­tion or share their own sto­ry, giv­ing her a sense of self­ish enti­tle­ment. At the same time, how­ev­er, Min­nie is a very lov­able Jew­ish grand­moth­er who often repeats her­self to make her point and to show her close obser­va­tion and con­cern for her fam­i­ly. By choos­ing Min­nie to be an omni­scient nar­ra­tor, Cheuse priv­i­leges read­ers with an objec­tive under­stand­ing of his char­ac­ters’ strug­gles (as objec­tive as any grand­moth­er can be) and empa­thy for the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of the char­ac­ters’ search for life­long ful­fill­ment. The sto­ry of Min­nie, Man­ny, Maby, and Sarah is one mixed with humor and hard­ship, a curi­ous Jew­ish Amer­i­can immi­grant fam­i­ly and how they indi­vid­u­al­ly deal with tragedy.

Relat­ed content:

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth, pub­lished by Main Street Rag Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny (2018) and win­ner of the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award. Her poet­ry has been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ing: Voic­es of Pow­er and Invis­i­bil­i­tyLilith, Raleigh ReviewMin­er­va Ris­ing, Third Wednes­day, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been pub­lished in Green Moun­tains Review, the For­ward, Lit­er­ary Mama, and oth­ers. She holds an MFA from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She teach­es high school Eng­lish and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two children.

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