"Desires that aren't met don't go away, they just get twisted," muses Hannah Lehmann, the opulently temperamental protagonist of Daphne Merkin's "Enchantment." Hannah, a young New Yorker from an Orthodox Jewish family, is consumed by unrequited love, but you will find scant ordinary romance in this memorable, eccentric first novel.
Hannah's passion centers on her mother, in whom perfumed softness and rigid, punishing authoritarianism are seamlessly combined. Margot Lehmann subjects her daughter to unpredictable, apparently random treatment; kindness alternates with indifference and sheer cruelty, the last no less tormenting for being verbal and frequently subtle. Hannah is hooked, driven by an obsessive suspense that, to her, means being alive. Again and again she must navigate the shifting boundary between approval and rejection, never knowing on which side she will come to rest.
Despite its gloomy preoccupation, "Enchantment" is a lively, evocative, often amusing work. Through Hannah's voice, Merkin deftly captures the concentration on self-definition--as well as the doubt and frustration--of dawning womanhood. In this respect, the novel is deeply female. The adolescent's uneasy blend of childishness and maturity emerges brilliantly in scenes such as one that features Hannah shopping with her mother. Forced to comply with parental choice, she finds herself possessed of a dull but utilitarian winter coat. "I'll look like a doorman," she wails, helpless and close to tears. Yet moments later, transformed, she sits in Lord & Taylor's coffee shop, chatting demurely with her recent enemy.
Hannah struggles doggedly to maintain her dignity, but success is capricious and fleeting. At 14, sufficiently mature and skillful to advise her mother on up-do-the-minute cosmetic tricks, she must nonetheless remain at home with her fantasies and a host of siblings, while Margot, luminous in fur and diamonds, sweeps off to join her husband at the Waldorf-Astoria.
Hannah's is an unusual Jewish family--at least as represented in current American fiction: wealthy, ritually observant, German. At first glance, this is possibly the most intriguing aspect of "Enchantment," and it is therefore disappointing that the depiction is so lackluster. Nothing about Hannah's parents stands out as distinctly German Jewish except, perhaps, their discomfort with emotional excess and Margot's penchant for Spartan discipline.
In contrast, Hannah's grandparents, cameo figures in the novel, exemplify the strange mix of European and Jewish sensibilities that epitomizes German Jewish culture: The grandfather, his bearded face reminiscent of Freud's, is secretly more at home reading Thomas Mann than dissecting religious texts; the grandmother, product of an aristocratic British secretarial/finishing school, devotee of "shoes, marrons glaces , linens," smells cleanly of 4711 cologne and is wispily out of place in the bustling heat of Jerusalem. They earn the name yekke , a sobriquet for German Jews that implies admiration as well as disdain--depending on the user.
The prototypical yekke was urbane, earnest, discreet, and, above all, proud to be German. Reflexes of this personality, attenuated to be sure, still survive today. In Merkin's rendition, the German Jewish psyche becomes a vague and faded realm, comprising a handful of German expressions and, mainly, Margot Lehmann's harshness. This poorly serves a refined, if perplexing, heritage.
At the same time, however, the pallid version of Hannah's immediate environment is crucially important, because it dramatizes the stifling nest in which she is trapped. Late in the novel, she comments: "Somewhere in this story is a tragedy, but it is nearly impossible to see." Hannah's is a quiet sorrow, stemming from years of inconspicuous brutality: She writes a frantic, pleading letter from summer camp, only to have it returned in pieces, together with a note: "This is what I will do with each and every one of these letters"; Margot, in retaliation for an insult, ignores her despairing child for 10 excruciating days. Such inflictions, often accepted with the wretched conviction that they are deserved, form the basis of miserable, even tortured lives.
"Enchantment" is a pioneering novel, although probably not to everyone's taste, for it is strong medicine. The author insists that the bedrock of psychological development lies in primary bonding experiences. Sexuality, independence, creativity--even obsession and so-called masochism--are influenced by the child's first relationships.
At issue is not instinct but love, love of the most basic sort: neither perfect nor all-encompassing, since that is hardly possible, but steady, affirming, robust. Where there is no fundamental belief in one's own acceptability, the result is a terrified and vulnerable self. Merkin refuses to relent: Hannah, a victim of inconsistent nurturing, may forever be doomed to cling, waiting for the improbable day when her beloved finally sees the light.