Death in Queens


Cures for Heartbreak
By Margo Rabb
238 pages. Delacorte. $15.99.
Grade 9 and up.

Who would be eager to read a novel about the children of Holocaust survivors that opens with the funeral of the teenaged heroine’s mother, dead only 12 days after her diagnosis of melanoma? And who would continue turning pages when, shortly after the funeral scene, Mia, 15, and her big sister, Alex, end up in the intensive-care unit, watching their father on breathing support after a heart attack?

Everyone. That’s who.

Oh, yes, there’s an excessive amount of pain in this book, but the pitch-perfect, intimate, funny voice of the protagonist will pull you right in.

“If she [Mia’s mother] dies, I’ll die,” Mia writes in her journal, and in some ways, she does. She begins failing in school, becomes isolated, and obsesses that she, too, will be sideswiped by illness.

At first there seems to be no cure for Mia’s heartbreak. The tragedy doesn’t bring her big sister, Alex, any closer to her than she was before. Mia, hooked on Harlequin Romances, makeup, and shopping (Bloomingdale’s had been a spiritual home for Mia and her mother) continues to be at odds with Alex, who wears no-nonsense clothes and has a passion for logarithms. They fight through the funeral, shiva, at her father’s bedside, at home. Before long, Alex leaves for college with barely a backward glance.

Mia’s father, who should have been her rock, decides to retire from his shoe-repair shop with the money from his wife’s insurance, and lie around on the couch all day watching TV. Whatever attempts he makes to be there for her are so daffy and wrong-headed that they are worse than nothing. He lets the house degenerate to “The Spook House,” but is surprised that Mia doesn’t invite her friends over despite his urging. “I’ll bake a chicken,” he suggests. “We’ll all play Scrabble.” For Mia’s birthday, he buys her Teen Lady toiletries and wraps them in newspaper tied with a string. Then he gets a girlfriend, Sylvia, who takes herbal tinctures to prevent a return of her lung cancer and collects Zingy-Dell figurines, and tries to interfere with Mia’s life. In a rage, Mia smashes a couple of Sylvia’s Zingy-Dells, and Sylvia, coincidentally, dies. Mia blames herself.

Hoping that romance will help lift her out of her life the way Harlequin novels do, Mia accepts a date with a popular guy who takes her to a club. Too late, she realizes it’s a “pity date” that his mother pressed him into to try to cheer Mia up. Then there’s a young doctor who approaches her at the cafeteria of the hospital. All day she writes his name in her notebook, dreaming of their great future together. It turns out he’s the boyfriend of a social worker at the hospital whose only suggestion to Mia is to go shopping.

Judaism is no comfort to her either. “Religion is the cause of all the world’s ills,” her father says. And her mother wasn’t any fonder of it, either. Her mother, who had been a baby when her parents had barely escaped the Holocaust in 1939, had hated the cold, musty, dark Orthodox shul of her childhood in Washington Heights, crowded with other unsmiling refugees. As a result, the Perlmans never went to synagogue. Mia has to read the directions to find out what to do with the Yahrzeit candle that she sets up near her Barbie dolls. For Mia, Judaism is lox, kippers, latkes, and honey cakes. Once her mother dies, she turns to Twinkies and ice cream and other junk foods for solace, that is, until her father takes her with him to The Healthy Heart Week in Virginia, where they learn to exercise and eat tofu with elderly Southerners who say, “Bet your bippy,” and call their big tushes “hineybumpers.”

In history class, she’s expected her to answer simplistic questions posed in the color-coded textbook. But as she stares at a photo of a heap of skeletons in the Sky-Blue WW II section, it hits her that this is the reason her mother had often taken to her bed, depressed. This is the reason her mother had dug her nails into Mia’s shoulder when, on a bus, she’d heard German spoken, and why her mother had gone around with a tote bag jammed with supplies—“to be prepared for anything.” This is why so many of her mother’s friends, all children of Holocaust survivors, or, in the case of her mother’s first love, Rolf-Rolf Stein, orphaned by the Holocaust, lived with the same angst that, for some, could only be ended by suicide. When the teacher demands that Mia hand in her text immediately, she throws it across the room.

Despite all her hardships, Mia survives her grief through her own humor and a couple of rare teenagers who come into her life and make a difference.

There’s Kelsey Kang. At seven, Kelsey was abandoned by her parents when they began working almost 24/7 in their business. Kelsey, who can come home at any hour as long as she doesn’t wake her parents, isn’t spooked by Mia’s Spook House and is happy to have the slice of frozen Sara Lee cake with Mia’s father, even though his shirt is buttoned wrong and there’s a ketchup stain on his pocket. Leafing through the scrapbook Mia made of her mother, filled with photos, birthday cards, grocery lists, her mother’s doodle on a Post-it, Kelsey tells Mia, “You’re lucky to have had her.”

Most of all, there’s Sasha Backus, whom she meets at the hospital and, at first, refers to as “Cancer Boy.” While Mia is falling prey to hypochondria, Sasha, after a long bout of leukemia, leaves for a summer in Europe, and even goes off to Nepal. He not only has a lot to teach her about bravery, but, as a budding philosopher, about Buddhism, Plato, Aristotle, Spinoza, and Heidegger. When Sasha returns, holding his hand on a rooftop under the stars, Mia asks herself, “If grief has a permanence, then didn’t also love?”

Written in short chapters, some of which have been adapted from published stories, Cures for Heartbreak is a powerful debut with unforgettable characters, important things to tell us about family, history, death, love, and philosophy. It’s a story that will heal your own heart.