Monday, June 29, 2009

Nevermind the Goldbergs

Title: Nevermind the Goldbergs
Author: Matthue Roth
Genre: Young Adult Fiction
Price: $16.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: 0439691885

When first approaching Nevermind the Goldbergs, I was pleasantly surprised by the uniqueness of the idea behind the novel. You have Hava, a punk-rocking seventeen year old who's from New York City and happens to be an Orthodox Jew. While in the city, she inhabits a very enclosed world, filled with rules, beliefs, and ideas completely foriegn to those in the secular world. When cast for a television sitcom about a family of Orthodox Jews (like the Cosby's, only Jewish, the book says), Hava is thrown into the Hollywood world, a place that doesn't exactly embrace all the conservative tenants that Orthodox Judaism does (like shomer negiah--girls aren't supposed to touch boys they aren't related to). Reader is compelled to watch Hava navigate this strange new place with a certain amount of cynicism, arrogance, and a surprisingly genuine love for her religion and God.

The biggest thing I can say for this book is that it educates you. Clearly Matthue Roth has a brilliant knowledge of Orthodox Judaism--not just the extensive and numerous laws and rules, but the culture and daily life that goes along with it. There were so many nuances between Hava and the other Jewish characters, particulaly once out of the sheltered neighborhood in New York, that you felt like you were in on an inside joke you otherwise would be clueless about. Roth suddenly makes you this honorary member of the Orthodox Jewish community, where you eat and pray with the characters and understand the numerous difficulties in being a very religious person in a very secular society.

But that's just one small part of the book. The story is really Hava's story, and unfortunately, I found her to be barely palatable. She (and many of the other key characters) is unlikable. While her conflicting emotions about the situation she had been flung into were understandable and natural, her handling of them mad her come across as a bit of a bitch. She tries very hard to maintain a sort of cool, mainstream appearance while maintaining her religion at the same time. While admirable, her belief that she is doing it well leads to a sort of "cooler-than-thou" attitude that isn't flattering. While I understand and know first hand, having been a teenage girl myself, that these feelings and behaviors are common and relatable, the writing doesn't make them feel common or relatable.

There are other character issues as well--no one seems to like each other. Hava doesn't seem to care for any of her friends at home and is only friends with them because she is forced to spend time with them. The actors with whom she works are, for the most part, not likeable (either weak-willed or incredibly catty and two-faced) and they don't seem to like Hava. There is back-stabbing and a sort general stand-offishness (or cruelty, even) that is bandied between the characters. For example, I was completely taken aback by the nastiness between Paula, the actress portraying Hava's onscreen mother, and Hava. At one point Paula puts a television in Hava's dressing room with live feed from her dressing room, so Hava can watch her having sex with another actor. Disgusting, right? Unbelievable that a forty-year-old woman would do that to a seventeen year old, right? And I'm supposed to enjoy reading about these people? Not so much...

That said, all the main characters have multiple dimensions. While you may not like them, you get why they are the way they are. Hava and one the girl playing her sister on the sitcom, Evie, need to grow up. They need to mature and learn that the world does not revolve around them, though with fame being thrown in their faces, I see this will be hard.
See, I'm talking about them as if they're real people. While Roth may not have crafted the friendliest of characters, he has gone beyond the one-dimensional heroine and created a complex person.

Another issue I had was how Hava arrived in Hollywood. The novel starts with her leading a normal life in New York--going to school, hanging out with friends, and enjoying her favorite music. While at school one day, she gets a call that she's been cast in a sitcom. Did she audition? No. Did she send in a tape or headshots? No. She was "discovered" by producers, somehow, after she was in a rather play about composer John Cage. She flies out to Hollywood the next day and starts filming shortly after. And her conservative parents are okay with it. Does this seem a little strange to you? First of all, I don't know what parent, religious or not, let's their underage seventeen year old just go to California alone, with no supervision, to be on television. That struck me as extremely odd and kind of a cop-out on Roth's part. Shouldn't there be some tension between her and the parents? An argument? Something?! Secondly, and perhaps this is just my naivete about how Hollywood works, but would they really cast a complete nobody in just a day? That struck me as odd, too.

When authors sort of take the easy way out and don't bother to give an explination for things (and I felt this happened a lot over the course of the book), it makes it very hard on the reader. If I am not fully invested in what you have to say, meaning, I'm not willing to believe everything you tell me, the story becomes nothing more than a poorly told fairy tale.

I think, perhaps, the fact that I wasn't privvy to everything that was going on kept me from enjoying the book. Hava's relationships with people for example--one moment they're cool and fun, the next they're losers, or vice versa, and there is no explination for the sudden change. Or how and why she does certain things. There are a couple of times where Hava runs off when she should be filming the T.V. show. You get the impression that she's frustrated, but nothing's happened. I spent a great deal of time sitting there, book open in my lap, jaw dropped, asking, "But why?"

Roth does an excellent job in crafting complicated characters in interesting situations. I kept reading because I wanted to what Hava would do next, and wondered if she would remain Kosher or how she would (or if she would) maintain shomer negiah. Despite my feelings towards the characters, I wanted to know the end (though I had to push myself to get there). In any case, the idea behind the novel was a good one, the characters well crafted (for the most part), if a bit mean, but the plot was too thick, too confused, and trying to be too many things at once (a coming of age story and teen drama mixed with an homage to Judaism, punk rock, and California).

Comparable Reads: I honestly can't think of anything I've read that it's like. Uniqueness is something Roth seems to have going for him. If you've read it and can think of something, feel free to leave a comment.

Who is this book for?: This book will, at the very least, intrigue your smart-ass teenage girl. Hava isn't a mirror, like many heroine's in these types of books tend to be, but a mannequin. You might have the same clothes, and similar figure, but she's completely different and almost unrecognizable at the same time. That idea, I think, can be intriguing to teenager who is struggling to fit in, but doesn't want to fit in at all.

Happy reading!

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