IN her second novel, My Before and After Life (St. Martin’s Press), Risa Miller tackles the intellectual and emotional challenges of faith when she creates a plot of two sisters, Honey and Susan, attempting to rescue their elderly father from what they believe is his “born-again” discovery of Orthodox Judaism while he is on vacation in Israel.
Set in Brookline, a neighborhood of Boston, Miller weaves a family’s story and a Jewish community’s story, each struggling with its own complex relationships; the former is about the relationship between adult children and their parents, and the later is about the relationship between the Orthodox and the secular — faith and reason.
On a more profound level, Miller has both stories and the relationships struggle with the idea of truth — the Ultimate Truth — in a transcendent sort of way.
It’s a style and topic most novelists don’t tackle.
The struggle for truth is heard through the voice of “secular” Honey, the protagonist, who takes you through her anger at her father for dividing the family and abandoning her and her sister Susan, which he promised 25 years earlier not to do when their mother died of breast cancer.
Honey feels that her businessman father has divided the family in a way that brings up Honey’s pain of losing her mother all over again. To avoid that pain, and to quell her negative perceptions of her father as a convert to Orthodox Judaism, Honey, along with Susan, fly to Israel, believing that they can “talk sense into him” and bring him home.
Therein lies the struggle for truth; her perception of how simple this would be because of how simplistic his newfound connection must be.
“We were going to deprogram Dad from his brainwashing cult, bring him home, and sick or well, evangelist or alien, we were going to save him.”
MILLER seems to suggest that there is a black and white understanding, almost a naïve perception, which the secular have of the religious or newly observant and their journey. She weaves these misconceptions and others into the dialogue as well as Honey’s thoughts.
Through Honey’s own journey, the reader comes to understand that everyone struggles through their faith, and that it’s a process, rather than some “White-hot Hallelujah moment.”
Because Honey has always been someone who thought about life on a deeper level, as opposed to Susan’s “live and let live” attitude, she has a moving experience in Israel while on a trip up North, which starts a slight shift in her thinking.
Back in Boston, the rest of the novel is a mixture of Honey’s spiritual struggles, along with her day job of, ironically, defending a neighborhood board against the expansion of an Orthodox day school in Brookline.
At times the read gets dull because the only character developed through dialogue and narration is Honey. The rest of the characters are pretty flat. But perhaps that is what makes Honey’s struggle for truth more believable.
While there are too many coincidences in the second half of the novel — on a less intricate level, it reminded me of all the neatly placed coincidences in Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities — this still is a worthwhile read because it has the ingredients of a novel with the content of spirituality, a unique marriage in the literary world.
WHILE Miller herself insisted that she didn’t want her novels to reflect her personal life, it is hard not to see some similarities.
At a book reading I attended, and in various interviews I read, I learned that Miller herself is a “returnee” to Orthodox Judaism, lived in Israel for a period of time, is married to a lawyer, and was involved in a zoning board battle for the Orthodox day school in Boston, where she lives.
Additionally, some of the issues she built into the novel’s Jewish community actually resonated with some points in a historical accounting of Boston in The Death of an American Jewish Community.
But as any writer (and she teaches writing at Emerson College) would say, that’s where the similarities end. (And, in all fairness, it is hard for me not to mention here Amos Oz’s chapter in the Hebrew version of his A Tale of Love and Darkness about critics who suck out the joy and truth of a novel when they try to make a connection between the characters and the author himself.)
Miller says she created the fictional Honey based on a house guest’s face when she and her family were doing some sort of ritual.
And the way Miller wraps up Honey at the end certainly has no resemblance to Miller’s current life as Orthodox Bubby and writer.