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Dearest Anne (thoughts)

March 2, 2010

I believe Dearest Anne by Judith Katzir is my first foray into Israeli/Hebrew literature.* And what a breathtaking way to get introduced.

Katzir is a beautiful writer, and she’s peopled this book with vivid characters, luscious prose, and a web of disturbing morality questions. The novel opens with Rivi, now a grown woman, successful author, wife and mother of two, returning to her childhood home for the funeral of a beloved teacher, Michaela. In her grief, she’s writing to Michaela, and then she discovers her old journals. The rest of the story alternates between Rivi’s journals (that cover her adolescence in 70s Haifa) and ‘intermissions’ about the present. I personally love this structure, and Katzir pulls off the distinction between young-Rivi and older-Rivi so well. Even 13-year-old Rivi’s voice is distinct from the 17-year-old version…I found the whole journal thing so believable.

This believability is key, because the story itself is anything but conventional. Interspersed with a wonderful amount of detail on middle-class life in Haifa (the author’s background mirrors Rivi’s), which made me feel as if I got to know a slice of Israel, is the story of Rivi’s passionate affair with Michaela. Since we see the affair from young Rivi’s eyes (most of the time), it’s disturbingly easy to forget that Michaela is 26, her teacher, and committing pedophilia. Rivi is completely caught up in her first love, as I think all of us are at in that first relationship. In addition to the emotions, Rivi is delighted by all of her new sexual experiences. And let me tell you, Katzir can write some steamy scenes. I’d love to share one with you, but I’m worried it might draw some odd people to my blog.

This led to an odd reading experience for me. For pages, I’d be caught up with Rivi, happy for her. And then I’d draw back, and think about what was happening from an ‘outsider’s’ perspective, and my heart would break for Rivi. Because, honestly, even she didn’t realise it, and even if she loves Michaela and has lots of orgasms, she’s still being abused. Right? But since we’re seeing it through Rivi’s eyes, the taboo becomes secondary to the love.

I think the power of the book is that there aren’t any easy answers. None of the characters are portrayed as all good or all bad (at least, not to the reader…from young Rivi’s perspective, that’s a different matter!). Michaela is shown as troubled and conflicted, and although what she does is wrong, it never seems like she set out to seduce a young girl…more that she fell in love with her, and didn’t see the problems in pursuing that love (I do wonder, though, how differently I would have reacted had Michaela been a Michael.). I want to be clear, Katzir has certainly not written an apologia for pedophilia…there’s a delicious scene late in the book, when older Rivi is remembering the reaction of a lover of hers when she told him about her affair with Michaela. He’s older than her, and he gets SO angry and talks about how if it was his child, he’d kill Michaela. That gives Rivi a pause (she’s 23 at this point), since every other man she’s told has reacted with, at most, a certain lascivious interest. And while she first writes it off with a ‘you don’t understand attitude,’ I think that being told, for the first time, that what happened was wrong probably affected her powerfully. And then when she’s middle-aged, and has two daughters of her own, she looks at everything in an entirely new light. I think all of this reflection, which is at the very end of the book, makes it immeasurably stronger. It allows the reader space to reflect as well, although Katzir doesn’t ever force moral judgements.

Even though the love and sex is central to the book, it’s not why I fell in love with it. That honour is reserved for Rivi herself…I’m a big fan of the bildungsroman genre, especially when it comes to girls. Rivi’s journals are addressed to Anne Frank, whose diary she receives for her Bat Mitzvah. I read Anne Frank’s diary at the same age, and it definitely captured me, so I thought Rivi’s fascination with Anne was entirely believable. The delicate interplay there enriched the story for me. Not to mention, while Rivi is superficially very different from me (Israeli, having an affair with her teacher, etc.), she still called forth that awkward adolescent girl within me. Like Rivi, I was a huge reader and loved to write; I had teacher’s pet tendencies*; I felt that I had become uglier once I hit puberty…I could go on, but I think you get the idea. :) I really connected with her, and that’s entirely due to Katzir’s masterful writing. At it’s heart, this is about a girl trying to become a woman, which is a story I think all of us can appreciate. And the prose in this book is to die for, reading it is like holding a polished jewel up to the light and turning it about to see every facet…not to mention the plotting; the way Katzir rachets up the tension in the reader, I ended up staying up past my bedtime because I had to know what would happen!

I’ve rambled on for probably long enough, but I do want to briefly talk about one other thing. I picked this book up for the GLBT Challenge, under the impression Rivi was 17 or 18 when the affair started. While as a piece of literature, this book was amazing, I wouldn’t call it a piece of GLBT lit by any stretch of the imagination. In an afterword to the book, it’s mentioned that Israeli lesbians soundly rejected the book, which I completely understand. There’s already a problem with people who are anti-homosexuality conflating love between consenting adults and pedophilia, and this book certainly wouldn’t do anything to change it. Rivi doesn’t identify as a lesbian…she expects to ‘grow out’ of her attraction to women (I almost said girls, but she never mentions any fellow classmates as crushes) and even though she’s been ‘making love’ (her words) to Michaela for years, she still becomes obsessed with losing her virginity, which to her just means man-woman intercourse. Additionally, there’s a definite sense of cosmic reward and punishment related to pursuing a heterosexual or homosexual life. I wouldn’t consider this representative of queer lit any more that I’d recommend Lolita as a straight lit book.*

I hope I’ve done a good job of conveying to you how much this book affected me, and that I haven’t offended anyone with my discussion of some incredibly sensitive issues. Now I’m curious about the contemporary Israeli lit that I’ve been oblivious to in the past. Any suggestions on where to go next?

-*-

Footnote One: And with perfect timing, it’s Jewish Book Week! I swear I didn’t plan it that way…I was already intending to do a post on this book today.

Footnote Two: Although, I’d like to state for the record, these were never of the brown-noser or know-it-all varieties. I just enjoyed chatting with adults and always did my homework. But I definitely didn’t shoot my hand in the air all the time, desperate to show off my knowledge. Promise!

Footnote Three: Did you think I was going to go the whole post without mentioning it? I’m just proud I didn’t go there sooner!

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41 Comments leave one →
  1. March 2, 2010 5:14 am

    See now being a mum of two, I would jump on the same band wagon as the older lover of hers. I would find it so wrong. I understand that it happens and that some of these youngsters actually believe they are in love, but it is still so wrong. I don’t want to sound all moral and law abiding, it just doesn’t sit well with me, but that is coming from a maternal viewpoint.

    I wonder if I should read this, just to get my own handle on it. However, I am not good with steamy sex scenes, to be honest.

    I am pleased that you enjoyed it though. It reminds me a little of The Reader, where even though you know the relationship is wrong and illegal, it takes second place to the rest of the story and you kind of accept it.

    • March 3, 2010 12:48 am

      I find it SO wrong too! I hope I didn’t give the impression otherwise. I completely think Rivi was exploited & abused by Michaela.

      I read The Reader years ago, but I don’t remember it well enough to make an intelligent comparison.

  2. March 2, 2010 5:27 am

    This sounds very powerful and fascinating. I can’t say I’ve ever read any Israeli/Hebrew literature before (aside from Edeet Ravel, who is very Canadian) but am terribly intrigued by this.

    • March 3, 2010 12:49 am

      I’d love to see other bloggers’ opinions of it! It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I’d read it as part of a book club; there’s so much scope for discussion.

  3. March 2, 2010 5:50 am

    Wow, Eva. I’ve also never read any Israeli/Hebrew lit before but your review has made me absolutely fascinated in this story. I’ve gone straight to Amazon to add it to my wishlist because you have such a way with words, you’re enthusiasm for this story is infectious! It sounds like such a powerful story, filled with controvsial topics, but dealt with in an excellent way. Plus, like you, I also like the style of switching from present narration to the past/journal entries.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. :)

    • March 3, 2010 12:49 am

      Thanks so much Ceri! I hope you read and review it so we can talk about it! :)

  4. March 2, 2010 6:51 am

    Like Vivienne, The Reader came to mind when I was reading this review. It’s a talented author indeed that can unseat us to the point that we drift in and out of that realization that this situation is wrong from a grown-up moral viewpoint, but the writer is powerful enough to put us in that adolescent position as well. I’m very interested in reading this one now!

    • March 3, 2010 12:50 am

      As I already mentioned, I know I read The Reader, but that’s about all I remember. (That, and being underwhelmed by the ‘twist’, lol) She’s definitely a powerful reader!

  5. March 2, 2010 7:06 am

    My only foray into Israeli/Hebrew literature was not a good one, and I’m hesitant to pick this one just because of the way it handles homosexuality. I’m glad you enjoyed it, though, and that you found it a powerful story. Although, like Vivienne, it reminds me of The Reader, I just don’t it’s a book for me.

  6. March 2, 2010 7:10 am

    Sounds like a powerful book, thanks for sharing.

  7. March 2, 2010 9:53 am

    Wow, heavy stuff! I don’t know if I would be able to read this one at this particular time, having recently finished a pretty violent book. But your true appreciation and deep respect for the story came out so clearly in your review that I am sure others will delight in reading it! So many powerful themes and ideas in here.

    • March 3, 2010 12:51 am

      Thanks so much Aarti! You’ve made me blush. :)

  8. Sarah permalink
    March 2, 2010 1:03 pm

    This sounds intriguing Eva, I’ll have to track down a copy.

    Re Israeli fiction, I’d recommend the a short stories of Etgar Keret- they manage to be bizarre, funny and sad all at once and quite a few have been made into movies. I was very impressed by Amos Oz’s memoir A tale of love and darkness and hear his fiction is good as well. And The Confessions of Noa Weber by Gail Hareven was hard to put down- it’s a story of (straight) obsessive love and its role in one woman’s life, and Noa’s voice is convincing, entertaining and touching.

    • March 3, 2010 12:52 am

      Ohhh-those short stories sound so interesting! As do your other recs. Thanks so much for giving me some leads! :D

  9. March 2, 2010 1:35 pm

    Eva, This book sounds wonderful. I like your synopsis and analysis. I’m currently taking a class on literary exegesis and analysis so I’m loving it when someone takes the time to do some analysis. And, yes, this class is why you haven’t seen me around the blogosphere lately! Anyway, I haven’t read much Israeli literature, so will note this title. I have “The Genizah at the House of Shepher” by Tamar Yellin sitting on my stack of TBR and can’t wait to get to this. Unfortunately, it won’t be during Jewish Book Week (I didn’t know there was a Jewish Book Week!).

    • March 3, 2010 12:53 am

      Thanks so much! I don’t feel at all equipped to analyse novels, so your comment makes me feel quite puffed up. :D I’ve been wondering why you haven’t updated your blog is awhile! But it sounds like your class is keeping you busy. I didn’t know there was a Jewish Book Week either, until I saw a couple British bloggers mention it.

  10. March 2, 2010 3:55 pm

    You do a great job here writing about issues that are hard to talk about, Eva. I just struggled to write about a similar story (Marguerite Duras’s L’amant de la Chine du nord/The North China Lover), and I think it’s particularly difficult for me as an American, who is used to absolutist moral judgments on all things sexual – as I was reading Duras’s book she was sometimes uncomfortably free of judgment, almost like she would judge me for labeling what happens as “morally wrong.” (L’amant de la Chine du nord deals with a lot of issues of class & money, and makes it very uncomfortable to judge any of the characters for acting as they do.) Anyway, long comment, but just wanted to say very nice post! :-)

    • March 3, 2010 12:54 am

      Thank you Emily! I’ve felt that way with other books I’ve read…as if I’m being too judgemental. This one didn’t feel that way, especially with older Rivi’s reflections at the end, it seemed to me that Katzir agreed with me!

  11. March 2, 2010 5:52 pm

    Wow. Interesting post on a book that sounds fascinating. I love books that really grapple with difficult moral questions. And I’m a bildingsroman fan as well.

  12. March 2, 2010 5:57 pm

    Sounds great – really different. I haven’t read any Israeli/Hebrew literature either. I will try and do so

    • March 3, 2010 12:55 am

      It was definitely different than what I was expecting!

  13. March 2, 2010 6:48 pm

    What a fascinating sounding book. I love the cover, it’s just gorgeous. I’m not sure it’s one I’d want to read though; I don’t love books with lot of sex, especially something like this. But maybe I should get out of my comfort zone and try something uncomfortable once in awhile.

    • March 3, 2010 12:56 am

      That makes sense. There’s quite a bit of sex…either Rivi describing sex or thinking about it. ;) But it didn’t bother me the way some books that are full of x scenes did…maybe because it’s in diary form? So rather than feeling like I’m peeping in on something, I’m more just finding out how Rivi reacted to it? I don’t know.

  14. March 2, 2010 7:51 pm

    I’ve been keeping an eye out for books set in Israel/Palestine lately. This sounds fascinating, if a little bit disturbing. Ordinarily I have the lowest possible tolerance for books dealing with pedophilia (child protection worker’s kid! :P), but this sounds interesting enough to be worth it.

    • March 3, 2010 12:57 am

      If Rivi had been any younger, I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to read the book. I have a very low tolerance for most things involving kids too. :/

  15. justicejenniferreads permalink
    March 3, 2010 1:36 pm

    Wow. I think you did a great job with the review: you really pulled out a lot of the intense issues that the book seems to explore. I’m definitely interested in reading this one now. It sounds like a really interesting book with a lot of really important themes and issues. Great review: I think you introduced and discussed the book in a really mature and relevant way.

    • March 5, 2010 12:13 am

      Thanks so much Jennifer!

      Fyi, your name doesn’t link to your blog. Fortunately, a google search of your name brings it up, but you might want to change your settings. :)

  16. March 3, 2010 7:06 pm

    I would love to read this one. Unfortunately, my library doesn’t carry it. :( I will definitely keep the title in mind though for when I am buying books (which rarely happens these days, sadly). Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Eva.

    • March 5, 2010 12:13 am

      Bad library! I feel you on the book buying ban. Can you ILL things?

  17. March 5, 2010 9:15 am

    “I think the power of the book is that there aren’t any easy answers.”
    I think you hit the central nerve with that sentence–that’s the power behind any book worth reading. This sounds like an interesting and difficult book, and you did a wonderful job of presenting and analyzing it. Thank you.

  18. March 5, 2010 9:25 am

    I ordered this from The Book Depository last night. Should I read the Diary of Anne Frank first? I do have a copy, it’s just, y’know, my TBR mountain is over 600 books high.

    • March 10, 2010 4:26 am

      I read Diary of Anne Frank when I was 13 (so the same age as the narrator when she reads it)…I don’t think you NEED to have read Diary in order to enjoy Dearest Anne. Just as long as you know the general story of Anne Frank, you should be fine. :)

      • March 10, 2010 6:59 am

        I know the essentials, but it might actually be good motivation for me to get around to reading it. It’s been on my shelf for quite a while!

  19. March 7, 2010 7:31 am

    Great review! This book does sound really good. It sounds like a really compelling story, and I’m definitely going to check it out!

  20. March 12, 2010 3:32 pm

    I don’t know how I missed this book. It sounds so interesting! Something I’d like to read. I find it interesting that Rivi addressed her journals to Anne. Great review!

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