BY ERIC MARKOWSKY
Author: Joan Leegant
2010, W.W. Norton & Co.
Filed under: Literary
Wherever You Go is set primarily in Jerusalem and the surrounding territories, though it focuses on the lives of three Americans with complicated relationships with Judaism. Yona wants to reconnect with her extremely devout sister; Greenglass, once saved from a life of drugs by religion, is suffering a crisis of faith; and Aaron aims to prove to his father and the rest of the world that he is a worthy son of the Holy Land.
Each of the individual narratives works well enough at first, but they never come together in any sort of a satisfying way. When the strands do begin to intertwine, about two thirds of the way through the book, their interactions seem more convenient than anything else, providing the characters with contrived opportunities to bring their stories to some kind of closure.
For me, the biggest disappointment was the failure to make the most of the setting. Wherever You Go does very little to evoke any kind of a textured world or to convey any sense of what makes Jerusalem and the rest of Israel unique. People eat falafel and cucumber and tomato salad. Most of the Israelis are “from central casting.” It’s very hot. That’s about it.
In fact, many of the book’s descriptions focus on how Jerusalem and the territories are just like anywhere else. The territory settlement where Yona’s sister lives looks “like a planned community in Florida,” a description which is nicely undercut by details like “passengers alighting bulletproof bus number 170,” but for the most part there’s too much of the former and not enough of the latter. The descriptions insist on the setting being just like anywhere else without accounting for why that might be surprising or interesting.
The book’s greatest strength lies in its characters. Greenglass is compelling and likeable. Aaron is compelling and infuriating. Only Yona seems a bit flat, but that also seems to be her problem with herself; she doesn’t like herself much or have much faith in herself, which only makes her appeals to her sister all the more desperate. These characters could be the cast of an interesting novel, but they would need to interact more in a setting that seemed as alive as they are. As it is, they don’t work together nearly well enough to carry the novel.
Recommended reads: For books that abound with vibrant settings, try W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants or E.M. Forester’s A Passage to India.
[A review was requested and a review copy provided. Ms. Leegant has also contributed writing to Chamber Four, and an advertisement for this book has appeared on the site.]