The Beau­ti­ful Possible

By – February 15, 2016

What is The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble about? While the sto­ry flirts with many con­flict­ing ideas (the search for God, the strug­gle to find one’s iden­ti­ty), the core of the book lies with­in the hearts of our three pro­tag­o­nists: sad and search­ing Wal­ter, a refugee from World War II, his life per­ma­nent­ly on hold as he strug­gles to come to terms with the loss of his fam­i­ly; young and eager Ros­alie, recent­ly engaged and search­ing for mean­ing and hap­pi­ness in her new­found adult­hood; and con­fused and lost Sol, Rosalie’s fiancé and a soon-to-be rab­bi, a man who believes his hap­pi­ness will be found in the study of the Bible, forced to con­front hid­den inner feel­ings the moment he and Wal­ter are introduced.

We meet these three char­ac­ters ear­ly on in their lives, when the future still holds so much pos­si­bil­i­ty. As the years go on, we see how these char­ac­ters morph into peo­ple who become strangers to one anoth­er — strangers who want total­ly dif­fer­ent things. The star stu­dent becomes the rab­bi strug­gling to find a con­nec­tion to God; the opti­mistic bride becomes the over­whelmed and dis­ap­point­ed wife; the refugee know-it-all turns regret­ful, mov­ing through­out life with­out a home or a fam­i­ly to claim as his own.

While all three char­ac­ters love each oth­er intense­ly, the love changes through­out the years as well. Sol and Ros­alie find their ini­tial attrac­tion and lust dimin­ished after Ros­alie and Wal­ter set off into a wild affair that changes all their lives for­ev­er. And Sol and Walter’s rela­tion­ship grows from study part­ners and friends to some­thing more com­plex, more con­fus­ing for Sol and his tor­tured heart.

What could be seen as a super­fi­cial love tri­an­gle between these char­ac­ters is to over­look the com­plex­i­ty that is found in their rela­tion­ships. Sol and Ros­alie love each oth­er, but Wal­ter man­ages to inspire both Sol and Ros­alie in dif­fer­ent ways. The book traces their growth from young adult to the end of their lives, as Ros­alie and Sol get mar­ried and have chil­dren, while Wal­ter becomes a schol­ar and trav­el­er of the world. The con­nec­tion these three char­ac­ters have to one anoth­er is not a sim­ple one, but one wrapped in years of lust, intel­lec­tu­al stim­u­la­tion, betray­al, and compassion.

A fable for the mod­ern era, a love sto­ry steeped in bib­li­cal text and mys­ti­cal yearn­ing—The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble illu­mi­nates the strug­gle to find one’s iden­ti­ty in a world rife with expec­ta­tion and judg­ment — and how entire­ly pos­si­ble it is that the life you think you are liv­ing might, in fact, be a beau­ti­ful lie.

Evie Saphire-Bern­stein is the pro­gram direc­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil. She grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go with a B.A. in Eng­lish and a minor in Jew­ish Stud­ies. Before join­ing the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil team in 2015, she spent a year and a half work­ing with­in the Con­ser­v­a­tive Move­ment as the Net­work Liai­son for the Schechter Day School Net­work. She is a recent trans­plant to New York City, after liv­ing in Chica­go for most of her life. In her spare time, Evie is a writer and blogger.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of HarperCollins

  • How do you under­stand Abra­ham Joshua Heschel’s quote: Books are no more than seeds; we must be the soil and the atmos­phere in which they grow” and Walter’s quote: The words of the texts echo in the lives of the peo­ple who read them.” How are these relat­ed ideas expressed through­out the novel?

  • Paul and Made­line are sec­ondary char­ac­ters whose actions shape the plot. What roles do they play in the sto­ry and do these char­ac­ters share any similarities?

  • Why doesn’t Sol con­sult with Wal­ter direct­ly for help in writ­ing his ser­mons, and why does he sug­gest that Ros­alie go to Berke­ley? How is Sol both con­scious and unaware of Ros­alie and Walter’s affair? What does this reveal about his character?

  • What role does Rosalie’s father play in the sto­ry, and how are the teach­ings of the Ish­b­itzer Rebbe expressed through­out the novel?

  • Dur­ing the fire at Eden Ranch, Wal­ter calls out Sonia and Josef’s names, among oth­ers. What does this scene sig­ni­fy in the story?

  • Com­pare the ways in which Sol and Ros­alie express their grief after Lenny dies. What does this reveal about their indi­vid­ual per­spec­tives on faith?

  • In The Fourth Night” chap­ter, do you think Sol becomes aware of the con­nec­tion between Wal­ter and Maya? How is this sug­gest­ed, and what remains enigmatic?

  • Com­pare Rosalie’s and Maya’s under­stand­ing of Jew­ish tra­di­tion. How are their spir­i­tu­al sen­si­bil­i­ties alike and how do they differ?

  • Made­line says to Ros­alie, It takes three, sweet pea…. A man and a woman and a liv­ing spark that keeps all the desire in motion.” Explain what this means in the con­text of the nov­el. Do you agree with Madeline?

  • Sol says, It’s bet­ter to be a spir­i­tu­al civil­ian than a spir­i­tu­al leader.” What con­tributes to his ambiva­lence about his pro­fes­sion? How does Maya rein­ter­pret this in her own approach to becom­ing a rabbi?

  • Why doesn’t Ros­alie tell Maya about Wal­ter? Why does Made­line final­ly tell her?

  • What is the point of view in this nov­el, and how does the book with­in a book motif relate to the story?

  • The con­nec­tion between Wal­ter, Ros­alie, and Sol is described as a braid. Does this braid­ed love sto­ry car­ry a sense of betray­al, a sug­ges­tion of redemp­tion, or both? If betray­al, who is betrayed? And if redemp­tion, who is redeemed?

  • Whom do you con­sid­er to be Maya’s spir­i­tu­al par­ents? Explain.

  • What role does Bev play in the story?

  • What does the title The Beau­ti­ful Pos­si­ble refer to?

  • Do you think Maya’s life in Jerusalem ful­fills Sonia’s dream? Why or why not?

  • In her clos­ing let­ter to Made­line, Maya writes, Inside every sto­ry lies the hid­den ker­nel of an infi­nite one.” What does this line mean in the con­text of the nov­el? Dis­cuss how this state­ment finds expres­sion in your own life.