All I Love and Know, by Judith Frank, William Morrow, 422 pages, $26.99
Reviewed by LISA RACHAEL WALKER
Judith Frank’s second novel begins just after a family tragedy: Daniel Rosen’s identical twin brother, Joel, an esteemed radio personality in Israel, has just been killed with his wife in a terrorist attack in a Jerusalem café.
The sudden trauma sends the immediate family into a tailspin. Joel’s parents grieve for their talented son, and the fact that their two young grandchildren are orphaned. And Joel’s wife, Ilana, a strong-headed woman born in Israel, has left her Auschwitz-survivor parents with another devastating loss that they can barely absorb.
But the focus of the book is primarily on the relationship between Daniel, the surviving twin, and his partner, Matt, who is not Jewish.
Daniel and Matt have a close, fun-loving, long-term relationship that is just fine the way it is. They live in Northampton, Mass., where Daniel works as an alumni magazine editor and Matt as a graphic designer. Their life is comfortable and, although less exciting than the New York party scene that Matt has left, they feel protected, with a large gay and lesbian community to both support them and poke fun at.
It’s all cozily politically correct, as Daniel and Matt well know, but when Joel is killed, their life is altered forever.
First, Daniel begins to wonder how much he has unconsciously stepped aside so Joel could be in the limelight. Has he ever really tried to fulfill his own potential? Second, just how comfortable is Daniel with the fact that he is gay, and not part of the mainstream, and that Matt is not Jewish?
Some of the larger questions include where he stands on the Israel-Palestine issue, and whether he is really up to the challenge of raising Joel’s surviving children — with Matt. But that is the custodial arrangement requested by the deceased parents, and there doesn’t seem to be a choice.
Suddenly, Daniel and Matt are plunged into a life that is indelibly marked by a trauma, much as Ilana’s parents must wrestle even now with their memories of Auschwitz. And Joel’s children, Gal and Noah, have become quite demanding. Gal, who is just beginning school, has her own scars from losing her parents. Her anger and brilliance challenge her new guardians at every turn. Noah, who isn’t even walking, also manages to express his grief in heartbreaking ways.
Given these obstacles, in combination with Daniel’s own grief about losing a brother, let alone an identical twin, Daniel struggles to survive emotionally. The children’s incessant needs and the difficulty of mourning a loved one’s death almost destroys his relationship with Matt.
All I Love and Know follows this newly composed family with precision and thoroughness. Frank, who teaches English and creative writing at Amherst College, explores the impact of a terrorist event on a family from every dimension, and stays true to the various ways each of the characters suffer in the aftermath — even in a bucolic town like Northampton.
She understands how the most mundane aspects of a relationship can suddenly become flashpoints, just as in one moment everything can be normal, and then, randomly, a bomb can explode and change many lives forever. As the novel progresses, the author suggests a kind of organic healing that can be borne out of tragedy and conflict.
The author also explores the inner world of Matt, the non-Jewish partner, with great generosity and sensitivity. In some ways Matt, who never asked to carry the burdens of being part of a Jewish family or of caring about Israel or of raising children, is a hero in the story. His support of Daniel, despite Daniel’s rage and confusion, and his willingness to accept that Daniel’s parents will never fully approve of him, are examples of one of the greatest tests of love: When the very foundation of a relationship suddenly changes, are you strong enough to change with it, to accept a thoroughly different life than the one you expected? And to do so without resentment?
Even the title of the book reflects Frank’s unique portrait of a very real-seeming couple. First comes love. “Knowing” is secondary.
Lisa Rachael Walker was a regular book reviewer for the Detroit Free Press. She now lives in St. Paul.
(American Jewish World, 8.15.14)