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Gall in the family

When We Were Bad A Novel ;Charlotte Mendelson ;Houghton Mifflin: 322 pp., $24

August 12, 2007|Kerry Fried | Kerry Fried is a writer living in New York.

EVERY day in every way, the Rubins are getting better and better. Well, perhaps not quite. But Claudia Rubin, the family's dazzling, driven matriarch -- first female rabbi of New Belsize Liberal and darling of the British media -- has matters in hand. Her forthcoming mix of memoir and "moral and ethical handbook" should shore up her finances and cement her status as "family goddess, the soul of the nation."

At 55, Claudia has more fears and responsibilities than she can admit to. Her expenses have too long outpaced her earnings, and the family's house in North London is crumbling. Her husband, Norman, a biographer, rarely contributes to the coffers, and her two youngest children never do. Another mother might see these soon-to-be-thirtysomethings as the layabouts they are. Claudia, though, knows better: Dreadlocked, spliff-smoking Sim (Simeon) and exquisite, fragile Em (Emily) are doomed to failure in an inferior world.

However, the second-most-successful Rubin -- her 34-year-old barrister son, Leo -- is marrying just the right wife, which should ramp up publicity for her book quite nicely. And though his mother isn't presiding over the ceremony, she is, as always, stealing the show: "With her in their midst, this brilliant schtuppable pioneer, who could not be happy?" Only the uninvited, of course, particularly the goys outside the synagogue gates.

Unfortunately, some of those within are also less than content. Frances, the fourth sibling, is nervous by nature and not the stylish offspring Claudia wished for -- though she's a literary agent, her clients aren't the sort whose names you drop. And the best man is jittery; we soon discover why when Leo leaves his bride-to-be at the chuppah. This is not a case of cold feet. The groom's true love, it emerges, is "the officiating rabbi's wife," Helen Baum.

"When We Were Bad," Charlotte Mendelson's immensely funny and affecting third novel, pivots on this bravura opening sequence and then sustains its narrative energy. Over the next two months, through the eyes of Claudia, Norman, Leo and particularly Frances, we watch this sacred monster move into damage-control mode and expect the others to do the same: "They want what she wants. How could they not. They will not let her down again."

But they continue to do so. Norman is shedding his role as a failure: His exploration of Cedric Vickers ("bard of suspicious, sentimental Middle England," with more than a touch of John Betjeman about him) contains a biographer's -- particularly a Jewish biographer's -- dream bombshell. Yet he's doing his best to botch things, since he hasn't managed to tell Claudia he has a book coming out, one that might well upstage hers. And then there's the question of Selina Fawcett-Lye, a fellow biographer, who hangs on Norman's every word, even the Yiddish ones.

Frances, fearing herself an indifferent wife and mother (and a worse stepmother), longs for passion and stimulus; for a while, she finds the latter in extended phone calls with a tantalizing androgynous medic who is her sister's girlfriend. As for Leo, giving up Helen Baum is more painful than he expected: "If he cannot find a way to forget his beloved he will have nothing to look forward to but the energetic efforts of his community: matchmaking at Chanukkah cabarets and vegetarian Seder sing-alongs, eyelash-fluttering over the book of Leviticus, Tuesday night Older Singles Mingles. He might as well be dead."

"When We Were Bad" is more than a highly patterned English domestic farce. The literary critic Lorna Sage referred to the "festive rhythm" in Iris Murdoch's writing, and Mendelson's prose has even more swing and zing. There's no shortage of wry byplay and observation: Norman debating "which of the Queen's sons seems most Jewish"; Frances' young stepdaughters settled on the sofa, "comparing their inner lips"; Frances evading responsibility in the loo, "rolling her forehead on the calcified tiles, lowing softly like a calf, to pull herself together." The hyperarticulate Rubins, so adept at using language to avoid communicating, are aware of how it can wound. When Claudia admits that she's known about Norman's book all along, she adds, "And it's good for your career. . . . What happens within a marriage is not the issue here." Norman can't even respond -- "Never has an indefinite article frightened him more."

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