Marina Budhos Goes Home Again Gravity, Family, and Country
Global City Press, $12 paper You may not be able to go home again, but nothing can keep you from circling the place continuously. Sarah Weissberg, the protagonist in House of Waiting, Marina Tamar Budhos' first novel, desperately wants a home. Left on the orphanage steps with a note pinned on her blanket by her mother that reads, "Just remember: my daughter is Jewish," six-year-old Sarah arrives at the home of her adoptive parents, like a lonely moon sucked into the gravitational pull of a large, cold planet.
As Sarah explains, Frieda and Samuel Weissberg, strict Orthodox Jews, "seemed nice enough, but they left a chill that stiffened into a cold knot at the bottom of my spine." Frieda is a tyrant about the apartment, requiring teacups be hung on their special hooks, counting her hair pins, and, in 13 years, never once rearranging the furniture in their rear tenement. Samuel, who had fled Russia before the worst of World War II, nurses "a wound that seemed to flow darker and angrier each year" and is "suspicious that anything unknown must be dangerous." Although she learns to love her parents for "the small things" and excels at school to please them, it's no surprise that serious, studious Sarah is bedazzled by someone like Roland Singh, who takes her by surprise as she hides in the stacks at the NYU library by offering her food, and not just any food, but an Indian pattie - pungent, steamy, and spicy. What in the world would her suppressed parents say if they saw her sharing this food with a stranger, licking her fingers clean among the books?
In a nutshell, the Weissbergs say Sarah is no longer their daughter if she runs off and marries this curly headed, dark-skinned immigrant from British Guiana. But she cannot resist Roland's charms and their shared feeling of being outsiders in 1950s America. So begins Sarah's orbit around a second family made up of Roland and his East Indian and Indo-Caribbean friends. I guess they're friends, but despite the time they spend with one another, it's hard to tell if Roland even likes these people. Perhaps it's the constant pull from his homeland, where he's left behind his child by another woman and Guiana's political struggle for independence from Britain, a struggle in which he incessantly wants to play a part. Soon his allegiance to his country overpowers that for his American wife, and he leaves a pregnant and disconnected Sarah to wait for his return.
When Sarah, Charles and Sarita Magalee, Vijay and Claire, and half a dozen families from their Indo-American Club decide to rent a house in the Catskills for the summer, the task seems no less a challenge than what the freedom fighters in Guiana must face. Thinly veiled prejudice by landlords and realtors makes these outsiders' determination to rent a house so fierce that after a day of frustrated searching they grab at the last house they stumble upon in the moonlight, a "dark, vagrant mass." When they finally take possession of the house on Memorial Day weekend, the bright sunlight treats their summer dream home less poetically. Half the window panes are broken, the roof leaks, tar paper hangs from the porch rafters, and inside it smells like "an emptying drain."
This summer house, which should be a lark and a carefree adventure, drives its occupants apart and then back together in new and strange allegiances. The ill-conceived terrace Charles wants to build off the second story to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July becomes a symbol of his desire to rise above their struggles in the city and overcome the narrow-mindedness of the summer colony. At the same time, it's the source of betrayal by his friend and the catalyst for his wife's insurmountable unhappiness. And yet, in the end, it's this rickety tower - built without a permit, or guidance, or help - that brings the occupants of the summer house together to watch, not the fireworks of Independence Day, but the lightning storm that follows.
As the first drops of rain begin to fall, Sarah realizes "that was the last of it, as if the many directions we were all moving toward, like some hidden design, had finally taken hold." Sarah seeks out Frieda and Samuel, who is dying, and begins to understand, if not accept, their tight-fisted lives. But before she is forever locked within their world, she leaves them again to find her husband in Guiana in the midst of civil upheaval. And she brings him and his Guianan daughter back to the summer house as the leaves fall and the air turns cold. And the house - possibly Budhos' main character - again transforms its inhabitants, revealing the author's knack for transforming even bit players from one-dimensional props into fully realized characters with a succinct observation or two: Ranjit is a man who is "used to neatly sweeping up big ideas, spreading them out on his thin fingertips"; Tara's rigidity and cold judgment of Americans becomes believable when she grimaces as guests at her home drain their glasses of beer and she shrilly scolds her nephew for running around with American girls. And Ed Rowe's boundless prejudice rises like bile when he demands of Sarah, "So how'd you end up with these folks?" He is the kind of man who will never understand Budhos' message that we don't "end up" with people.
We are drawn to certain people for reasons that are hard to explain. We are born into families that may or may not want us. We chose friends and lovers that we can adore and hate in the same moment. But once you begin the orbit, the only way to break free is when an even larger body - adoptive parents, passionate love, even a summer house - passes by and pulls you in. n