Past is future and vice versa.
About The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman: 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 two centsGrowing up, Marjorie and her sister Holly were very close. They were both entertained with the tales their Grandpa Eli told of the wondrous miracle worker called The White Rebbe, a Jewish figure who worked with the Angel of Losses. But one night, the story of The White Rebbe turns frightening, a moment that hints of Grandpa Eli's past.
Older, Marjorie becomes morbidly fascinated with The White Rebbe to the point that she makes it her vocation as a scholar. Holly's marriage to a conservative Jewish man drives a wedge between Marjorie and Holly. However, the sisters are forced to come together when Grandpa Eli dies, leaving behind a notebook filled with tales of The White Rebbe of their childhood.
Thus unfolds two stories—the tale of the two sisters as they work towards reconciliation despite their own convictions, and the tale of a grandfather whose secrets of a lifetime have unwittingly impacted on the lives of his descendants.
The melding of history, Jewish folklore and theology make for engrossing reading. I thought The White Rebbe was an intriguing character and the mention of his prominence cross culturally was something that piqued my curiosity! (Think Santa Claus in all his incarnations across the globe.)
I was also entranced with the magical realism of this novel: dipping into events of the past melding into a dream of today, mysterious people of the past coming into the present. Some of the incidents sent chills down my spine, a certain creepiness to the mysterious.
But I have mixed feelings how all this came together. The two-fold story kept me up late into the night because I wanted to find out whether Holly and Marjorie would eventually see eye to eye despite Holly's obvious compliance to her zealot of a husband, Nathan. I also wanted to fully understand Eli's tragic past. I wanted to find out how the clash between Marjorie and Nathan would turn out. I wanted to find out how all this would play out for Holly's son.
Being totally uninitiated in Jewish folklore or theology, I fumbled through the pages-long stories of The White Magician and The Angel of Losses. While this aspect initially intrigued me, I confess that I eventually skimmed through some of the stories because I couldn't wrap my head around it all. For example, I couldn't figure out who or what exactly the Angel of Losses is, who in my mind was akin to death (that's my guess). Since the Angel of Losses is the namesake of the novel, I felt that I should've at least been clear on that point. Seems to me The White Rebbe overshadowed the Angel of Losses. A closer reading may be good for me so I can understand this. Or maybe the folkore part can be tightened up a bit taking into consideration that many may not have the benefit of some knowledge of Jewish folklore.
There is a lot going on in this novel and sometimes it was a bit overwhelming for me with two plots and the substories of the White Rebbe.
Overall, I felt it was a unique cultural and magical take on a story of the bonds wrought by family.
As a debut novel, it promises of more to come and I will be on the lookout for more of Stephanie Feldman's work!
P.S. I love the cover design and it was the first thing that drew me to the novel.
Verdict: If you are intrigued by Jewish folklore and mythology and enjoy magical realism, pick up this unique story of family, sisterhood, and the White Rebbe.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.
Check out the rest of the tour here.
Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: Ecco (July 29, 2014)