Judy Goldman's The Slow Way Back

Book Reviews

The Slow Way Back

by Judy Goldman

William Morrow & Co., $24 hard

Thea is a radio therapist. She specializes in the quick suss, the simplification, the broad generality. She puts a smooth grade over pebbly particulars; she is practiced at the quick, neat wrap-up. Useful skills for a radio therapist: For a novelist, though, they can be deadly. Judy Goldman's first novel too often succumbs to the questionable virtues of her heroine.

The Slow Way Back is a tender but not completely successful look at southern Jewish life through three generations of sisters. Thea reaches out to her own sister, and back into the two earlier generations, to uncover an old family mystery: Why would her mother never discuss her wedding day? The key turns up in a set of letters from Thea's grandmother to her sister, written entirely in Yiddish. As they are translated (one at a time, and improbably slowly) by a friendly Yiddish speaker, Thea solves the mystery -- though possibly well after the reader does.

In these translated letters -- and in another written by Thea's mother from a sanitarium -- the writing is musical, vivid; it jumps off the page. Of the wedding, for example, Thea's grandmother writes, "Florence, a dress with a jacket, the color of wine. Everyone shined of course as from such a lovely family. Everything was lovely and fine. Sorry that you and Meyer did not see this, then I would not have to write so much."

But most of the book is written in flat, decidedly unmusical prose. The voices lie on the page, inert, stubbornly refusing to suggest actual people. The text is infested with exclamation points. Bad exposition is inserted into worse dialogue. And Goldman, an NPR commentator, can sometimes slip into facile cliché, as when a grandmother's photo has "those wise eyes the women of that generation always had."

The novel also tends to be overcrafted, its seams and joints painfully exposed. For example, on her radio show, Thea keeps getting questions that relate to the very same issues she is going through in her own life. This gives her (and Goldman) a chance to make overly explicit points about marital infidelity and sibling rivalry.

These problems are unfortunate, because Goldman has an interesting story here. Readers who are sufficiently pulled in by the subject matter or the mystery Thea struggles with may be able to overlook the book's other flaws. "At the heart of everything," Goldman writes, "were the phantom halves of her family's stories, the ghost of what was not being told." If Goldman had had enough confidence to leave a few more mysteries, a few more phantoms, this might have been a better read.

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The Slow Way Back, Judy Goldman

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