Kantika and Take What You Need

July 7, 2023 | ,

I’m not proud of it, but I initially resisted picking up Elizabeth Graver’s Kantika, released in April, because it was giving off such try-hard vibes. Marketing postcards, publicity emails, and review copies started showing up on my desk and in my inbox about a year ago, none of them subtle about presenting this book as the Sephardic novel we have all been waiting for. As a professor of American Jewish literature, I’m often asked to recommend novels of Sephardic life in the US, and I knew I would be delighted to have another to add to that not-especially-long list. But the title (“song” in Ladino), the cover (tilework evoking the East), the blurbs (“a gripping story of twentieth-century Sephardic exile and reinvention”), the dedication (“in memory of my grandmother”), the epigraph (from a “Ladino proverb”), the archival family photos at the beginning of each chapter—it all left me feeling a bit exhausted, and made me worried that this “multigenerational saga” rooted in family history would be too straightforwardly made-to-order.

The book’s first chapters, set in Turkey, Spain, and Cuba, didn’t entirely allay those concerns. Though skillfully and movingly told, they did check all the boxes I was expecting. The novel really came to life for me in its last third, as it turned, unexpectedly, into the intimate story of a mother raising a disabled stepdaughter. This, too, is based on Graver’s family lore—her aunt Luna Leibowitz wrote charmingly about life with cerebral palsy for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel—but Graver takes us into the consciousness of a kid with a disability, and the stepmother who has to overcome prejudices to care for her, with such sharpness and insight that it made me want to recommend the book to everyone I know.

I also started out a little skeptical of Idra Novey’s Take What You Need, published in March. I’ve admired Novey’s fiction and essays before, but when I opened this novel up to find it was alternating between two voices, chapter to chapter, I got worried. (You can blame my annoyance with that structure, and whatever else is bothering you, on Jonathan Safran Foer.) And I didn’t feel especially eager to learn more about the estranged relations between Leah, a somewhat indistinct (and possibly autofictional) woman living in New York, and Jean, her sort-of-stepmother who “never left the town where she was born . . . in the Southern Allegheny Mountains.” As I kept reading, I found bits here and there that drew me in: Jean, who has just died when the novel begins and narrates much of it in flashbacks, was an outsider artist who spent her final years constructing large metal towers, taking inspiration from Louise Bourgeois, Cindy Sherman, and Diane Arbus, as well as her Jewish family’s history in the scrap metal business. But other aspects of the story felt a bit pat—Jean, an idiosyncratic thinker living in a red state, befriended a neighbor kid and, guess what, there were some political and socioeconomic differences that may or may not have been overcome by an interpersonal bond.

I kept going, though, and when I reached the climactic scene, it bowled me over. It’s the chapter when Leah finally enters Jean’s house and sees the art she had been working on for all those years. It turns out that everything we’ve learned about Leah and Jean has been supplied so we have the complete context not just for how the art looks and why it was made, but also for all the emotions and history that Leah brings to bear when she encounters it, including the anxiety she feels when her son runs too quickly around it, ignoring her warnings. (That resonated; the one constant feature of my own museum visits over the past decade has been balancing my attempts to appreciate what I’m experiencing with my fear that one of my kids might bump into something and destroy it forever.) Reading this passage, I thought back to that moment at the beginning of Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station when the narrator says that he “worried that [he] was incapable of having a profound experience of art.” Novey’s novel works overtime to remind us all, quite reassuringly, that we do have that capacity.

[Originally published in the Jewish Currents Friday newsletter.]