Six Degrees: Ethan Frome to A Mother’s Reckoning

This month we began with Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, which was our buddy read for the short classics week of Novellas in November. I reread and reviewed it recently. (See Kate’s opening post.)


#1 When I posted an excerpt of my Ethan Frome review on Instagram, I got a comment from the publicist who was involved with the recent UK release of The Smash-Up by Ali Benjamin, a modern update of Wharton’s plot. Here’s part of the blurb: “Life for Ethan and Zo used to be simple. Ethan co-founded a lucrative media start-up, and Zo was well on her way to becoming a successful filmmaker. Then they moved to a rural community for a little more tranquility—or so they thought. … Enter a houseguest who is young, fun, and not at all concerned with the real world, and Ethan is abruptly forced to question everything: his past, his future, his marriage, and what he values most.” I’m going to try to get hold of a review copy when the paperback comes out in February.


#2 One of my all-time favourite debut novels is The Innocents by Francesca Segal, which won the Costa First Novel Award in 2012. It is also a contemporary reworking of an Edith Wharton novel, this time The Age of Innocence. Segal’s love triangle, set in a world I know very little about (the tight-knit Jewish community of northwest London), stays true to the emotional content of the original: the interplay of love and desire, jealousy and frustration. Adam Newman has been happily paired with Rachel Gilbert for nearly 12 years. Now engaged, Adam and Rachel seem set to become pillars of the community. Suddenly, their future is threatened by the return of Rachel’s bad-girl American cousin, Ellie Schneider.


#3 Also set in north London’s Jewish community is The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, which was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2013. Chani is the fifth of eight daughters in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish family in Golders Green. The story begins and closes with Chani and Baruch’s wedding ceremony, and in between it loops back to detail their six-month courtship and highlight a few events from their family past. It’s a light-hearted, gossipy tale of interclass matchmaking in the Jane Austen vein.


#4 I learned more about Jewish beliefs and rituals via several memoirs, including Between Gods by Alison Pick. Her paternal grandparents escaped Czechoslovakia just before the Holocaust; she only found out that her father was Jewish through eavesdropping. In 2008 the author (a Toronto-based novelist and poet) decided to convert to Judaism. The book vividly depicts a time of tremendous change, covering a lot of other issues Pick was dealing with simultaneously, such as depression, preparation for marriage, pregnancy, and so on.


#5 One small element of Pick’s story was her decision to be tested for the BRCA gene because it’s common among Ashkenazi Jews. Tay-Sachs disease is usually found among Ashkenazi Jews, but because only her husband was Jewish, Emily Rapp never thought to be tested before she became pregnant with her son Ronan. Had she known she was also a carrier, things might have gone differently. The Still Point of the Turning World was written while her young son was still alive, but terminally ill.


#6 Another wrenching memoir of losing a son: A Mother’s Reckoning by Sue Klebold, whose son Dylan was one of the Columbine school shooters. I was in high school myself at the time, and the event made a deep impression on me. Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is Klebold’s determination to reclaim Columbine as a murder–suicide and encourage mental health awareness; all author proceeds were donated to suicide prevention and mental health charities. There’s no real redemptive arc, though, no easy answers; just regrets. If something similar could happen to any family, no one is immune. And Columbine was only one of many major shootings. I finished this feeling spent, even desolate. Yet this is a vital book everyone should read.


So, I’ve gone from one unremittingly bleak book to another, via sex, religion and death. Nothing for cheerful holiday reading – or a polite dinner party conversation – here! All my selections were by women this month.

Where will your chain take you? Join us for #6Degrees of Separation! (Hosted on the first Saturday of each month by Kate W. of Books Are My Favourite and Best.)

Next month’s starting point is Rules of Civility by Amor Towles; I have a copy on the shelf and this would be a good excuse to read it!

Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?

20 responses

  1. I lived in the NW London Jewish community my first year in London. My Jewish landlady and I became very close and she took me to meet everyone. Everyone was very welcoming but it was nevertheless a revelation to see how they reacted to those who ‘married out.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, that’s fascinating! It does seem like a rather insular community, but I’m glad you found the people friendly.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ooh, will keep an eye out for The Smash-Up!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. All new to me – I’d read any of them!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Such an interesting chain. Have you read Naomi Alderman’s Disobedience? My favourite of her novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t, but I’d like to. My library has a copy.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The Segal and the Harris appeal, but I’m in no mood for Bleak just now – but this is a most interesting chain.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I thought I was the only one who read The Marrying of Chani Kaufman! But… I didn’t think it was lighthearted at all… in fact, I found it pretty depressing. Oh well… And, Rapp apparently came from Jewish stock to be a carrier. Tay-Sachs is a horrible thing, so much so that any couple in Israel who are both Ashkenazi (or have at least one fully Ashkenazi grandparent each) who want to have kids can get free genetic testing. My husband and I were both tested before I got pregnant with my first born. Thankfully, we were both negative!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. At the time I likened Chani Kaufman to Crazy Rich Asians! Maybe that was off-base.

      Rapp is a redhead from the Midwest, so her being a carrier was a total surprise. (I guess this was in the days before every other person had done a DNA kit for fun.) Tay-Sachs does sound dreadful. Just watching her son lose his faculties and slip away, and there being nothing she could do about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. About 40 years ago, one of Israel’s most beloved news presenters, Dalia Mazor, had a baby that had Tay-Sachs. She raised awareness to it and helped get the government to fund free genetic testing for Ashkenazi parents. Since abortion is allowed in Israel (surprise, right?), if parents test positive, they automatically get a free early amnio test, and if the baby has it, they can abort. Genetic diseases like these are why I get so PISSED at the US when they think about destroying Roe V Wade.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I so enjoyed this chain Rebecca – I’d like to read almost all of these books.

    The Smash-Up sounds great, and all of the books about the Orthodox Jewish community interest me very much. I worked one summer as a trainee in a solicitors’ firm in Finchley – I had lived in south London all my life and knew absolutely nothing about the Jewish community, so I was fascinated. Some of the partners in the firm were Jewish, but of more interest to me was seeing the celebrations in the street for certain festivals, and the special cakes and other foods in the stores and cafes along the high street.

    Not sure if I could cope with A Mother’s Reckoning, but as you say, we all should read it. We may not have quite such a big gun culture in the UK, but plenty of other terrible things happen, and mental health services are very much the poor relation of an already grossly underfunded health service.

    By the way I haven’t forgotten about Love Your Library – I’m half way through a blog post, I really am!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Rosemary!

      I’ve really enjoyed learning about Jewish rituals and holidays. My Jewish Year by Abigail Pogrebin was a wonderful introduction (in my post here:

      I live not far from the site of a rare UK massacre (Hungerford) — the big difference being that after incidents like that and Dunblane, the UK moved quickly to ban the weapons involved, and there have been no tragedies of a similar scale since. No such putting 2 and 2 together for the US…

      It would be wonderful to have you post something for Love Your Library! Tagging me on Twitter is probably the best way to ensure I see it and bookmark the page for later.


  8. Cool connections! So neat that the publicist got in touch with you!
    When I think Jewish literature, I think mostly Chaim Potok – I devoured all his books!
    And all Rashi’s Daughters, a trilogy of historical novels. I highly recommend all these.
    My chain is here:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve never read anything by Potok but I’ve heard great things about My Name Is Asher Lev.

      I love that you highlighted Pancakes in Paris. That was such a fun little book and I’ve rarely seen it mentioned.


  9. Some fascinating choice here! Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What a good chain! Dylan Klebold–wow. I read Columbine and WE Need to Talk About Kevin–his poor parents. I LOVED Marrying Chani…. so good.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I’ve read We Need to Talk about Kevin, but not Columbine.


  11. I enjoyed Alison Pick’s memoir; I can see where it would combine a lot of your favourite themes too!

    The Innocents is on my TBR but I’ve not made it there yet. I do love retellings though (well, mostly).


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