A group of Jewish emigrants from Latvia passes some time in Rome while waiting for the next way station in their lives. America, perhaps, or maybe Canada. Doesn't this sound like the recipe for a truly shmaltzy novel?In lesser hands, it would be, but this work of diaspora fiction is field-stripped of sentimentality. You will wait, patiently, for the stodgy old patriarch, Samuil, to reveal the tenderness within. You keep thinking he's going to redeem himself with an adorable gesture, or some unsolicited act of generosity. It never happens. You keep waiting for nostalgia, and the novel's romantic setting, to overwhelm the story. It never does. This must be the least sentimental story about the immigrant experience that I've ever read. You get the overwhelming impression that life, for these people, was a real struggle. Every day they face moral compromises. Rome is an in-between place for them in more ways than one. The characters must deal with challenges to their various loyalties: spouses, countries, political groups, parents. There is nothing cute or sweet about this extended family. The story is spare and unsparing.
But unsentimental does not mean devoid of feeling. In this debut novel, there is a palpable sense of yearning for a better time that never really existed.
I admired these characters just for getting by.