Oy vey

Katie Singer’s debut novel, The Wholeness of a Broken Heart (its title the translation of a Yiddish proverb, “es iz nito a gantsere zakh vi a tsebrokhn harts”), is a multivocal account of four generations of Jewish women. Centered around the primal conflict of mother and daughter, it attempts to tell a heartwrendingly honest tale of maternal abandonment. It fails. Singer’s heavy-handed, artless approach results instead in an excruciatingly tepid piece of fiction.

The main character, Hannah Felber, is a whiny young poet whose excessively intimate relationship with her mother, Celia, ends abruptly after Hannah leaves her Cleveland home to go to college in Ann Arbor. Like Hannah, the reader is perplexed by Celia’s seemingly inexplicable desire to cut her daughter off emotionally and financially. It’s a motivation that is neither adequately explained, nor sufficiently compelling to make us savor the mystery.

With a poet as a main character, it’s surprising how awkward and unpoetic the prose reads in Singer’s novel. Her language overflows with predictable similes and repetitious imagery. The stilted, dry rendering of dialogue is amateurish instead of plaintive. Witness a characteristic example from when Hannah moves to Boston and meets a new neighbor: “I like your outfit,” I say. “Oh, thanks,” she says. “It’s Moroccan. I heard you’re from Ann Arbor. What made you move here?” “I’m teaching,” I say. “At the Wild Women’s Center.” “Wow,” Annie says. “That sounds neat.” I bob my head a bit. “I like it,” I say. “So far.” “Mm,” Annie says.

Oy, I exclaim!

At the beginning of the book, Singer provides a genealogy, giving us the family tree for Leah, Raisl, Channa, Ida and others who speak or are spoken of in this elaborate ancestral saga. But, unlike Jeanette Winterson’s fascinating Art & Lies, which is also is told in alternating chapters narrated by several characters, Singer is never able to make the voices of the various narrators distinct. They all sound like Hannah, only with Yiddish inflections.

What’s more, the novel is so overly conscious of its own project (Hannah explicitly acknowledges her desire to write another Brown Girl, Brownstones) that the entire exercise comes across as forced. It’s as if Singer never took to her broken heart the familiar writer’s maxim “show, don’t tell.”

Comparisons may indeed be odious; but, since Singer herself has invited them … if you’re yearning to read a lush, poetic account of the fraught relationship between mother and daughter, pick up instead Jamaica Kincaid’s achingly beautiful Annie John. And let Hannah Felber whine on.

E-mail Audrey Becker at [email protected].

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