Sometimes writing book reviews for an obscure but longstanding book blog pays off. Like when people send you free books in the mail. Or when people send you free books in the mail exactly when you are seeking out new fiction to read. Or when people send you free books in the mail when you are seeking out new fiction to read AND said book has that wonderful mix of mythology, literature and religion that you tend to enjoy.
What is all this about you ask? 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.
This one hit the sweet spot so I moved it to the top of the TBR pile and dived in. It turned out to be an interesting mix of family dynamics and mystical Jewish legends.
The author weaved the two together surprisingly well; surprisingly because this is not an easy thing to pull off. There was enough mystery and suspense to keep reading but towards the end the mysticism was a little thick and it felt like the story was running out of energy.
At first I was afraid the family dynamic would get old quickly. But Feldman ratchets up the tension as the book progresses and the sister’s relationship never undermines the story. And the other relationships shift and change adding to the tension.
Behind all of these characters is an exploration of how we perceive and classify people in our lives (family, friends, lovers, etc.), how that can change (with events, conversations, new beliefs), and how our changing understanding or perceptions impact those relationships.
We often assign motivations, loyalties, and beliefs; allow the past to color the present; wish for relationships kept safe from time and the messiness of life.
There is also a mystery at the heart of the book; one rooted in the present and the other in both the recent and the distant past yet connected. This connection between the family dynamics and the mystery is the strength of the book; its engine. I thought the shifts between present, recent past, and mysterious distant past were well done. History, religion, culture, and family weaved together and still impacting lives today.
But the Jewish mysticism get a little heavy as the book moves to its conclusion and clogged things up a little (at least for me). This combined with an abrupt conclusion weakened the book’s impact.
I’m a little torn about The Angel of Losses. I enjoyed it and read it rather quickly but at the end I wasn’t sure what I was left with. I guess I wanted a more fulfilling resolution. I understand that fashioning a conclusion to a book like this is also not an easy thing but the book just sort of ends. It felt a little flat. And endings so often color our impressions, right?
But all in all an impressive debut novel.
As is so often the case Kirkus has a nice summation:
By turns gothic, heart-rending and impenetrable, Feldman’s story sometimes seems too wrapped up in its theology but eventually reaches a cosmic climax in which Marjorie embraces her destiny while re-establishing her connection to Holly.
If you like a blend of relationships and magical realism through the lens of Jewish mysticism you will enjoy this creative novel. It will be interesting to see where Feldman goes from here.
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