What’s Love Got To Do With It?


It isn’t really love that’s in the air in three new Israeli novels, but something more like whirlwinds of emotion that catch both the characters and the readers by surprise.

“And the Bride Closed the Door” by Ronit Matalon is a riotous satire of wedding-day jitters. Look deeper and it can also stand as a parable of a country divided, and most of all as an absurdist situation comedy of contemporary Israeli family life.

As this compact tale begins, the bride has locked herself in her room, alone, refusing to come out. Family hysteria reigns as her mother, the bridegroom and the prospective in-laws all take turns yelling, cajoling, trying to get any clues to or explanation for the bride’s emotional state and odd behavior. It soon becomes clear, though, that their concerns center less on the bride than on themselves, with their questions devolving into the more material matters of saving face — and money: What will they tell the 500 guests already waiting at a nearby catering hall to celebrate that very evening? What about all the money they’ve spent and will now lose? Can they salvage anything from this misfire of a marriage?

Throughout, the motivations of the bride herself — who stays hidden behind the door from beginning to end — remain obscure. It is up to those waiting outside her door — and for the reader — to try to understand why the bride has suddenly decided not to say the words “I do.” Instead, the only words that come out of her mouth, as filtered through the closed door, are “Not getting married. Not getting married. Not getting married.”

Her refrain (which is nearly identical to a lyric from Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece of marital ambivalence, “Company”) hangs over the day like existential doubt. While Matti the bridegroom ponders the course of their relationship, and even the very purpose of marriage, the others brainstorm how to break through the door. Will they find a peace settlement of sorts, courtesy of an emergency house call from a psychologist who advertises her specialty as “regretful brides”? Should they borrow a ladder truck that will allow them to climb up to the third floor window and force it open from the outside?

Observing the scene as it unfolds are two additional family members who double as a kind of wacky, modern-day Greek chorus: the bride’s flamboyant 21-year-old cousin Ilan, who has been excused from military service due to “incompatibility,” a euphemism for being gay; and the aged, inscrutable “Gramsy,” the bride’s grandmother. And there is one more character who hovers, hauntingly, over the proceedings: the ghostly presence of the bride’s younger sister. She has been absent for years, presumed killed in a terrorist attack that left no trace of her body. Unable to grieve, unwilling to discuss the subject out loud, her mother lives in paralyzed uncertainty. It is just one more subject the family dares not discuss openly.

One possible clue to Matalon’s — and the bride’s — intent lies in the author’s sly revision of the classic poem by the Israeli poet Leah Goldberg (1911-1970), “The Prodigal Son.” Goldberg’s poem, written in 1947, was itself a rewrite of the New Testament parable in which a father welcomes home and forgives the son who has left his family behind to wander the world, only to come back a beggar, having squandered his fortune. In Goldberg’s version, it is the mother who embraces the son upon his return. Here, though, Matalon has the reclusive bride write and slip under the door to her waiting groom the opening verses of a poem she titles, “The Prodigal Daughter.”

Is Matalon suggesting that the bride is embarking on a feminist journey that will leave her independent of the need for a groom? Is this the journey of Israel itself, in search of a way forward to peace? Or is it merely another commentary on the chaotic domestic reality of this family’s non-wedding day?

Elusive yet powerful, by turns laugh-out-loud funny and tragically sad, “And the Bride Closed the Door” is the last novel Matalon completed before her death at the age of 58, in 2017. The book’s brevity makes one wonder if, given more time, she would have provided additional clues to her intent. But she has provided enough to make us newly aware of her creative gifts, and to honor the distinguished legacy of her eight other novels.

In “Pain,” Zeruya Shalev examines the many variations of suffering, physical as well as emotional, that humans are heir to. We meet Iris, 45, on the 10th anniversary of the suicide bus bombing that nearly killed her, causing injuries so severe she required months of hospitalization and rehabilitation. Even now, a decade later, she remains a victim of chronic pain, subject to periodic spasms that leave her incapacitated.

And that is not the only trauma that has plagued her life. When Iris was in her late teens, Eitan, her high school boy friend and presumed fiancé, had dumped her so abruptly that she had fallen into a suicidal depression. His brutal abandonment, without explanation, had implanted in her residual doubts about her own ability to love, or be loved, uncertainties about her deepest being that she has never succeeded in banishing.

Still, on the surface, Iris appears to have recovered from her ordeals. Professionally, she has become a respected school principal, having transformed a failing school into a success. Personally, too, she has forged a long-term marriage to the caring if emotionally clueless Mickey, and has brought up two children: 20-something Alma and adolescent Omer. Whatever disappointments and ambivalence Iris harbors about them — Mickey is not the passionate lover Eitan was, nor are these the children she would have had with Eitan — she tries to keep to herself.

Shalev is not shy in pointing out the mind-body connection of physical pain. Simply being reminded of the bus bombing’s anniversary engulfs Iris in pain so agonizing that Mickey insists on taking her to the hospital. There she is referred to the head pain specialist — who turns out to be none other than Eitan.

The meeting triggers in Iris renewed anguish at her abandonment, and in Eitan buried depths of shame and remorse. To their surprise, their unexpected reunion also sparks passion. Their affair consumes them in a shared fantasy of a second chance that will allow them to undo their past errors and start over again, this time together. The lure is so mesmerizing that it takes several plot twists for Iris to recognize that rather than heal her old wounds, the new life she yearns for with Eitan would be tainted by her abandonment of her husband and children. Could she cause them the same kind of suffering that Eitan had visited on her?

Shalev’s intricate tale can be breathless, and her writing at times overheated. But she persuasively captures the acute, crazy-making agony that both pain and love can bring. Her story also dramatizes how easy it can be to confuse obsessions that masquerade as love with the ongoing nurturing attachments that buoy us through hurt and joy. The most difficult lesson to accept, Shalev suggests, is that there is no such thing as a fully pain-free life. The past will bring you to where you are — not back again to a romanticized place that never was.

Two years ago, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen attracted international attention with her grisly, well-paced thriller, “Waking Lions.” Now she has published a similarly dark follow-up, “The Liar.” As before, her main theme is the ways in which seemingly good people can become unwittingly ensnared in webs of immoral, criminal behavior. The dilemmas her characters face revolve around whether they can, or will, find a way to free themselves from their entanglements.

When we meet Nofar at the start of “The Liar,” she is a moody teenager convinced of her unattractiveness and bored by her summer job behind the counter of an ice cream parlor. Enter Avishai Milner, a washed-up entertainer who, unhappy with Nofar’s service, insults her so vilely that she runs into the street. What happens next is as open to interpretation — did Avishai sexually assault Nofar or did he merely grab her arm? Nofar’s adventures in lying bring her into contact with a variety of other not-as-upstanding-as-they-seem characters presented with temptations whose short-term gains are difficult to resist, no matter the possible long-term cost. Their motivations differ, as do their predicaments, but to say more would be to spoil the surprises and provocations that lie in wait for Gundar-Goshen’s many readers around the world.

Diane Cole, a frequent contributor to The Jewish Week, is the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges” and writes for The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, NPR online and other publications.