Monday, August 4, 2014

Book Review/Tour: The Angel of Losses, by Stephanie Feldman

The Angel of Losses
Stephanie Feldman
Hardcover, 288 pages
Ecco, July 29, 2014
Historical Fiction, Judaism, Literary Fiction, 
Magic Realism, Mysticism

Book Synopsis
The Tiger's Wife meets A History of Love in this inventive, lushly imagined debut novel that explores the intersections of family secrets, Jewish myths, the legacy of war and history, and the bonds between sisters.

When Eli Burke dies, he leaves behind a mysterious notebook full of stories about a magical figure named "The White Rebbe", a miracle worker in league with the enigmatic Angel of Losses, protector of things gone astray, and guardian of the lost letter of the alphabet, which completes the secret name of God.

When his granddaughter, Marjorie, discovers Eli's notebook, everything she thought she knew about her grandfather--and her family--comes undone. To find the truth about Eli's origins and unlock the secrets he kept, she embarks on an odyssey that takes her deep into the past, from 18th-century Europe to Nazi-occupied Lithuania, and back to the present, to New York City and her estranged sister Holly, whom she must save from the consequences of Eli's past.

Interweaving history, theology, and both real and imagined Jewish folktales, The Angel of Losses is a family story of what lasts, and of what we can -- and cannot -- escape.

My Review

(Reviewer's Note: The publisher provided me with a paperback ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.)

Although the Kabbalah has fascinated me for some time now, I am not at all familiar with Jewish myths and legends. I was therefore delighted to discover that this novel not only touches upon Kabbalistic ideas, but also interweaves them with the tales of the miracle-working White Rebbe. This character is not entirely fictitious; the stories of his exploits are most likely based on traditional  Jewish legends, especially of the Hasidim, which is a mystical Jewish sect.   The result, for me, was sheer fascination, and I found it extremely hard to put the book down!

There's a very poignant thread running through this novel, because, also interwoven in its pages of beautiful, lyrical prose are the eternal themes of the Jewish soul -- the longing for the Messiah, the heartbreak of exile, as well as a deep reverence for the Divine, whose true name is ineffable.

There are references to the Holocaust, too, which Eli Burke, Marjorie's beloved grandfather, incorporated into his stories of The White Rebbe, which he told his two granddaughters when they were children. After Eli's death, Marjorie comes into possession of one of his notebooks, and embarks on a quest to find out more about her grandfather's mysterious past. As she does, she gradually discovers his painful experiences during this terrible time in history. She had not even known he was Jewish.

Ironically, she is also  struggling to understand her estranged sister, Holly, who has converted to Orthodox Judaism.

Adding to the irony is the fact that Marjorie's search is fueled not only by her need to find out more about Eli, but also by the connection between The White Rebbe and the legends of The Wandering Jew. This just happens to be the topic of her doctoral dissertation in comparative literature.

Like the great exponents of magic realism -- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, and Isabel Allende -- Feldman combines fantasy elements with everyday, mundane reality.  Marjorie's frequently surreal quest is juxtaposed with the conflicts within her own family.  The novel seamlessly moves back and forth between these two worlds, the mythical and the real, even mixing them up at times. I love the myths and legends Feldman writes about, the spiritual knowledge behind them, the way she transports the reader into a mysterious, mystical world that is larger than real life. 

Another aspect of the book I really enjoyed was the story-within-a-story format, as there were several chapters dedicated to the stories from Eli's notebooks. These were absolutely beautiful, and I didn't find them at all distracting to the main narrative; they actually fit in quite well.

It's highly ironic that Marjorie, the non-believer, is the sister who goes through all of these fantastical experiences. Meanwhile, her sister, Holly, has re-discovered her Jewish roots -- without knowing she was doing so -- through her romance with, and subsequent marriage to, Nathan, a man who belongs to a mystical Jewish group, and who subsequently becomes interested in the legends of The White Rebbe.

Holly's easy journey into her roots is contrasted with Marjorie's, and this is an interesting parallel. Holly accepts her new life with little reflection or understanding of its deeper, mystical traditions. She is totally focused on more immediate, real-life concerns. Marjorie instead finds it quite a challenge to remain connected to the real world, in the face of all of her mystical experiences.

I especially love Marjorie and Eli Burke, who emerges as a mythical character in his own right. There's an unbreakable bond between the two of them, even after his death, that is very touching and strong. They are both storytellers, dwellers in myths themselves. In Marjorie, Eli has found his literary and spiritual heir, thus bypassing his own son, Marjorie's father, in a nontraditional succession that echoes the increasing role of women as spiritual leaders in world religions.

Filled with wondrous events and painful family dynamics, full of longing, hope, and sorrow, The Angel of Losses is a literary jewel, a debut novel that astonishes and fascinates. It's a brilliant work that deserves the highest literary accolades. It's also a work that should be read several times, in order to completely savor all of its intricate, totally mesmerizing beauty. I know I will return to it in the very near future, to immerse myself again in these stories that not only fire my imagination, but also, touch my soul.



Book Buy Links

Advance Praise for The Angel of Losses

"Lucid, tender, and masterfully portrayed, rich with Jewish lore and history, The Angel of Losses is an intergenerational story of perseverance and love in a changing world. There is magic at play here in more than one sense. A must-read."
-- G. Willow Wilson, author of
Alif the Unseen 

"Stephanie Feldman is one of the smartest and most original young writers at work today. Here she imagines the eternally exiled Wandering Jew as a wonder-worker, a frightened boy in the Vilna Ghetto, and a feminist scholar in Coney Island. With a deft understanding of the irreducibility of human relatiionships, Feldman leads us through love and loss and back to love again. Watch out for her. She is here to stay."
-- Sheri Holman, author of
The Dress Lodger 

For Further Information On 
Jewish Myths and Legends

About the Author

Stephanie Feldman grew up in Philadelphia and studied writing at the University of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Arts, and Barnard College. She lived in New York City for 10 years before returning to Philadelphia with her husband and daughter.
The Angel of Losses is her first novel.

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  1. I always really enjoy your commentary Maria. No exception here!

    I too am very interested in the Kabbalah and I yearn to know more. The plot of this one sounds very thoughtful and insightful. I like the fact that based upon your commentary, the book seems to mix the fantastical with strong characters, something that is not always common.

    Interestingly I am currently reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. This book also involves some really interesting aspects of Jewish folk law.

    1. Hey, Brian!

      Thanks!! I really appreciate your compliment!

      So you're interested in the Kabbalah, too? This subject is extremely fascinating to me, especially as there are different approaches to it, from the traditional Jewish one to even Christian-based ones.

      Yes, this book has very strong characterizations, and I especially like the characters of Marjorie and Eli. They are, in fact, the better fleshed-out characters in the book. Both have very similar personalities as well; they're both stubborn, highly intelligent, and gifted storytellers.

      Since I've never heard of this book you're mentioning, I looked it up on Amazon, and really liked it, so I've added it to one of my wish lists there. I'm also going to add it to my Goodreads shelves. It looks like a GREAT read!!

      Thanks for such a great comment!! : )

  2. Thank you, Maria! It's so gratifying to see a reader connect with the book this way. And thank you for spreading the word--I appreciate it! --Stephanie

    1. Hi, Stephanie!

      You're very welcome!! I greatly enjoyed your novel, and now I want to buy the nice hardcover with the deckle-edge pages! This is a BEAUTIFUL book, and I will be re-reading it again!!

      Thank you so much for your comment!! : )

  3. WOW I cannot wait to read this book after reading your review!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour! I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

    1. Hi, Heather!

      Thank you so much for the compliment!!

      I just knew, the moment I heard about this novel, that I just HAD to read it! And it totally blew me away!! I know I will be re-reading it in the near future. Of course you have to read it!! The writing is exquisite, the stories and overall plot are so fascinating....This book is a MASTERPIECE, believe me!

      You're very welcome for my participation in the tour! Thank you, thank you, thank you, for featuring my review on TLC's Facebook page!! I'm very honored!! : )


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