(Sarabande Books, 2003)
Ten linked stories that explore the emotional snarls in a secretive Jewish family.
2004 Winner of the National Jewish Book Award in Fiction
Rachel Gershon’s family is full of secrets. In her Grandmother Eva’s house, the doors are shut and curtains are drawn at all times. Her mother, Clara, can “seal a piece of time like a letter and send it away,” and her father, Abe, saves his confession until he’s well beyond the grave. It is Rachel’s only consolation that someday she’ll have the whole story, that she might, if she listens carefully enough, be able to trace the whispers back past her home on the steep ocean cliffs of California to the Indiana college town in the 1930s where it all began.
In “Elegy for Miss Beagle” a melodramatic young Clara daydreams of death, and romanticizes tragedy, until she is faced with her piano teacher’s sudden suicide. In the title story, Clara tries to cure the boredom that “slips over her like a harness” by secretly posing for an artist while she is pregnant. Later, in “God’s Spies,” Rachel witnesses how good adults can be at keeping secrets when her mother signs up to pose nude again, this time covered from head to toe in gold paint for a local Arts Festival. The ten linked stories of Portrait of My Mother, Who Posed Nude in Wartime, display a Chekhovian restraint, an exceptional richness and depth of insight into the strangeness at the heart of every family. Here, the profundity of everyday sadness is laid bare in lucid, quiet terms. Marjorie Sandor tells her stories like secrets, as if “some story under the story was trying to rise up.”
“These beautiful stories freeze the sweep of the hands of the clock, they stop the beat of your heart, with the precision of their language and their generous emotion.”
“You don’t have to be Jewish to experience as I did a low-level but visceral dread about the destiny of Sandor’s characters. Nor would one have to be Jewish to recognize, paradoxically, that there is also something else in these magnificently crafted stories-something resembling Jewish messianic expectations: a future sensed, yet not understood, but clearly desired, and for which we, in the meantime, wait.”
—Gerald Sorin, The Jewish Reader
“In her newest work, a set of complexly sensuous, linked short stories illuminating several generations in an American Jewish family, she offers subtle insights into the perverse nature of family lore. Rachel, daughter of Abe, a nervous doctor, and Clara, an apathetic beauty, muses over her family’s many secrets, beginning with single episodes from Clara’s Depression-era childhood. Then, as Sandor recounts her family’s journey from muted Indiana to dazzling California just after World War II, each story is like a card turned up in solitaire, revealing some key aspect of a character’s psyche while leaving much concealed. And what resplendent and resonant metaphors Sandor conjures up as she dramatizes a hilarious confrontation in a rowboat, a shattering piano recital, and the peculiar eroticism of having one’s portrait painted, As each family member evades, conceals, and distorts the truth, Rachel struggles to understand why, and to ascertain what exactly she is heir to.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist