Can You Fall in Love with a Concept?


Joy Comes in the Morning
By Jonathan Rosen
400 pages. Fararr, Straus & Giroux. $25.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Split Decision. This issue, we're looking at Jonathan Rosen's Joy Comes in the Morning. Below, writer Bezalel Stern lays out his complaint that Rosen's heroine is a less-than-round character. Click here to for a different opinion, from Rachel Rubinstein, a professor of literature at Hampshire College.

Joy Comes in the Morning, a new novel by Jonathan Rosen about a suicidal Holocaust survivor, his suspiciously Jonathan Rosen-like son, and the female rabbi who brings love and hope back into their lives, is in many ways incredibly trite and condescending. With its matzo-thin plot (it doesn’t take a Talmudic scholar to prognosticate the end of the novel from its first 50 pages) and its often forced dialogue, the book could be considered in many ways a literary failure.

So I was more than a little surprised to be taken in by this novel so fantastically and completely. Rosen weaves a story in Joy Comes in the Morning that is at the same time predictable and heart-wrenching, moving and clichéd. I often found myself agonizing and identifying with Lev, the novel’s main character and (perhaps) Rosen’s fictional doppelganger. The man-boy with the soul of a poet and the job of a reporter struggles his way through a world that has seemed to have grown up without him, leaving him behind, lost and uncertain. Although “he had been taking Krav Maga…Lev often found himself envisioning violent scenarios, despite the benign safety of Giuliani’s New York and his own gentle nature.” A child of a survivor, Lev cannot escape the nightmares of his father’s ghoulish past.

As the previous quote suggests, time and place are central to the story’s narrative. The action takes place at the cusp of the 21st century. It is 1999. America is enjoying an unprecedented prosperity. The horrendous attacks on the twin towers are two years away, but they could just as easily be 200. Looked at in ironic retrospective (as Rosen must be doing), the comparatively mundane lives and sometimes unbearably banal problems of the Friedman family and Deborah Green, their friendly neighborhood rabbi, are chilling in their lack of metaphysical uncertainty. To be sure, the novel’s characters have problems, enough problems to entertain one through a quick 400-page read, but the wistfulness of a pre-9/11 world easily overshadows Lev’s commitment issues and Deborah’s spiritual crisis.

By far the least developed character and most disappointing creation in this book is the Reform rabbi, Deborah Green. Deborah, in many ways, represents Rosen at his most didactic. This is how the model Jew should be, Rosen implies throughout the book. A virtual George Washington of late 20th-century Jewry, Deborah can do no wrong. From the novel’s opening sequence, when she bends down to tie the laces of an older, frail man (who turns out to be Henry Friedman, Lev’s father), to the picture-perfect wedding at the end of the novel, Deborah always manages to do just the right thing.

Combining a ceaseless desire to do good with a healthy measure of skeptical doubt, the woman cannot be anymore perfect, and becomes, in this way, less human then symbolic, conceptual. When, as she often does, Deborah breaks out into spontaneous song (people are often both joining in and breaking down in tears at the celestial beauty of her voice), it was enough to make this reviewer blush in shame. Characters like this should not inhabit good twenty-first century fiction because they don't live in this world either. Far from adding to the story, Deborah’s symbolic nature detracts from it. Can anybody really imagine falling in love with a concept?

And this, ultimately, is where Rosen’s novel fails. In many ways Rosen is a good writer, and I believe he has the potential to be a great one. But, if novels are meant to teach, they are not meant to teach by means of stuffing ostensible “truths” down one’s metaphorical throat. It was disturbing to me that, while Deborah’s beliefs and struggles are given the time and opportunity to be glorified, the major Orthodox character mentioned in the novel, Reuben, Deborah’s ex, is described only briefly as showing “more anxiety about the state of her kitchen” than compunction in sleeping with her. When the author describes “Modern Orthodox men” as “macho sissies," he takes his point a bit too far.

Without the extreme moralizing and the perfect rabbi, Rosen could have created a sound, stable book. Perhaps even something that had some lasting quality. Unfortunately, he chose the way of moral turpitude, brushing his New York Jews in thick paints of black and white, and not allowing enough gray to shine through. If he had given Deborah a single fault, the novel would have been much more of a lasting read. As it is, I fear that Joy Comes in the Morning will be gone from most reader’s hearts and minds by the afternoon.