CJ: Voices of Conservative Judaism out of Los Angeles includes A REUNION OF GHOSTS in its most recent fiction round-up. I’m so grateful for their support…and for the comparison to CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM. Wow. (Larry David, call me!)
by Lisa Silverman
A Reunion of Ghosts
Judith Claire Mitchell
Harper, 2015; 400 pages
The title of this absorbing and darkly comic novel refers to a group of ghosts, and it is a very fitting title. Three smart and sardonic sisters, Jewish New Yorkers with a devastating family history, make a decision to kill themselves on the last day of the 20th century. The novel is the treatise they write as a collective suicide note – something their ghostly ancestors (who all died by their own hands) never had the courtesy to leave to them.
Fate has dealt the middle-aged Alter sisters an unlucky hand. The novel moves back and forth in time between their individual lives and devastating losses to the story of their great-grand-father, Lorenz Otto Alter, whose horrifying sins caused the family curse they believe they have inherited. “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the 3rd & 4th generations” is the biblical quote tattooed on the calf of Delph, the youngest sister, and the one who most strongly believes in her family’s twisted fate. “Genius and monster,” they write of their ancestor, “he was the scientist who doomed us all.” Delph lives with her older sisters, Lady and Vee, and they describe themselves as a “partner-less, childless and petless sorority.” They intend to end it all in cosmic atonement for their German scientist great-grandfather’s invention of poison gas – the killing machine of World War I and the precursor to Zyklon B. (The character is based on the controversial Fritz Haber – chemist, Jewish-born Lutheran, and friend of Einstein who fled from the Nazis before his sinister chemical concoctions could kill him.) The details of the difficult Alter family legacy give the reader insight into their motivations and we are put in the position of oddly empathizing with their macabre desire while hoping they will find a way out of doing the final deed.
We like the sisters and root for them. It’s true that they are depressed and haunted by the past, but they find droll humor in the darkness. Lady’s first suicide attempt reads like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Of course, knowing she did not succeed helps, but even she says from her hospital bed: “Someday this will be funny.” And there are laughs through-out the book, from the 19th century portrait of Otto Von Bismarck hanging over the toilet to the offhand inclusion of the travails of Nim Chimpsky, the chimp who knows sign language. The themes of fate, coincidence, family ties and family curses, and the power of genetics are all bound up in the sisters’ smart and acerbic observations. This is what keeps us reading and on edge with hope for their redemption.