Disobedience by Naomi Alderman
When the novel opens Ronit, a financial analyst with talent, responsibility and money-making power in Manhattan, and with an ex-lover who’s decided to stop jeopardizing his marriage, hears of the death of her father and decides, after some thought on the matter, that it would be appropriate to go home after an absence of 6 years. She does not so much want to mourn her father as to tie up her past and retrieve some family items that remind her of her mother who died when she was a child. When she thinks of home, though, she is angry—both at her father and at the rigidity of the religion that dominates the town.
She goes home to the house of her cousin, Dovid, the intellectual and rabbinical heir to her famous father, and—as we slowly discover—his wife and Ronit’s school friend and ex-lover, Esti. The first night they all go to dinner at the home of a rich, pious and manipulative elder who is not expecting to see Ronit and whom she delights in telling about her (fictitious) architect lesbian lover—on the theory that she might as well be hung for a lion as a lamb. The novel's action is predictable—the three main characters painfully work out their relationships among themselves and with others. Ronit modifies her anger toward the religion she thought made her father so rigid in his dealings with her and she goes back to New York in a state of mind that pleases her psychiatrist, Dr. Feinbold, an absent but present (in Ronit’s head) character.
The novel is overly structured, but skillfully so. Each chapter begins with a quotation and a discussion of some point of Orthodox belief or ritual or practice. It’s not clear who the narrator is, but the voice always modulates into the ideas and experience of another character—Dovid, Esti, school friends of Ronit’s who have solidified into rigid and not terribly attractive matrons, Hartog (the pious manipulator), shoppers on the street in Hendon, etc. The Ronit sections are first person. Her language is breezier, freer, often humorous, but nonetheless honest and introspective. And they are also in a different typeface (I wonder how many editions of a book that would survive).
I liked it enough to say I’ll look for Alderman’s work in the future, though I’m not ready to agree with one of the blurbs on the jacket (“Move over, Zadie Smith").