The Angel of Losses

  • Stephanie Feldman
  • Ecco
  • 288 pp.
  • Reviewed by Risa Miller
  • September 9, 2014

Strong writing can’t overcome the author’s overreach in telling a fantastical tale.

The Angel of Losses, by Stephanie Feldman, holds much appeal and promise with its landscape of other realities and Jewish folklore, including the likes of a rabbi/wizard, ghost visitations, a Wandering Jew, a mysterious missing letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and a real-deal angel with a ledger of death under his arm.

Using these fantastical elements, protagonist Marjorie Burke, a 20-something graduate student and budding academic, finds that the writing of her dissertation is complicated by an overwhelming loss in her personal life. Marjorie can barely recognize her newly married sister, Holly, who, much to the chagrin of her gentile family, converted to Judaism and is now living with her husband, Nathan, as an Orthodox Jew.

In addition, the death of their dear grandfather Eli comes trotting back to haunt both women when one of Eli’s personal notebooks suddenly turns up. In it, he recorded tales of the mysterious White Rebbe; Eli used to lull Marjorie and Holly to sleep with similar tales of the “White Magician.” Turns out that the change in appellation is the first clue to Eli’s secret past and otherworldly endeavors. The trail of his secrets then leads neatly back to Marjorie’s thesis.

Feldman is a lovely writer with an engaging flair for metaphor. For example: Eli’s eyes were “the blue of chemically treated water and frosted corporate glass.” And she has a talent for rhythmic descriptions that make you pause before turning the page: “The train ascended to the lowest part of Brooklyn sky, traveling along a flickering filmstrip of orange leaves, brick walls with the occasional swoop of graffiti, smoggy wisps of cloud.”

The author also has a good instinct for plotting. Aside from the A Wrinkle in Time narrative, she throws in a sweet, geeky, “will she, won’t she” romance for Marjorie.

But the net effect of the novel is, I am sorry to say, off-putting and overreaching. First of all, the magic/fantasy element is weakened by lack of verisimilitude in the “real” story. The Angel of Losses is full of plot holes that are patched up with sudden appearances — of books, people, a pendant, and so on.

There’s also a surfeit of odd and convenient plot points: Holly and Nathan live in the home of the sisters’ parents, which the parents have just happened to vacate. The emotional logic is off here. Why are the parents so generous? They clearly disapprove of Holly’s lifestyle, and though they make some noise about Marjorie getting the house or both girls sharing it, Holly and Nathan end up there. As it happens, the device puts everyone in one place and enables Marjorie, Holly, and Nathan to unearth Eli’s heretofore undiscovered notebooks and then fight over them.

Plausibility is also strained by the nature of the underlying tension between the three protagonists, which is based on an overused go-to stereotype: the notion that living a strict religious lifestyle must be inherently repressive.

Holly and Nathan walk through the book like pod people: They stare straight ahead when they are in conversation, Holly’s voice “as blank as her face.” Nathan, a mumbler who recoils at females’ presence, has “perpetually hunched shoulders.” They belong to a group called the Berukhim Penitents, whose name and self-abnegating practices are more cult something-or-other than true Judaism.

Feldman intends that the sect be normative Orthodox, but her conveyance of that lifestyle is full of errors regarding Judaism’s customs and laws, including those of baby-naming, circumcision, head-covering, the dynamic of “kosher” conversion, and the general moral code of interpersonal interaction.

In her magic/fantasy element, the author crosses all boundaries of time and space to cull what appeals to her from 3,000 years of Jewish thought and esoterica. The angel in the story, for example, is from a European tale, circa the 18th or 19th century. Or maybe it comes from the time of Creation. Or maybe it’s Kabbalah. Or maybe the angel is from the time the Talmud was being written, a thousand or two years earlier.

Such a spirited novel as The Angel of Losses clearly wants to be and — with an author as talented as Feldman — should have been a Chagall painting, an experience of depth, amazement, and beauty. Instead, the imaginative fusion is too ambitious and uninformed, leading to inescapable flaws and distortions that cannot be concealed with word craft. As Flannery O’Connor once warned: “You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.”

Risa Miller holds an MFA from Emerson College and is the author of two novels, Welcome to Heavenly Heights and My Before and After Life, both published by St. Martin’s Press. She is a recipient of the PEN New England “Discovery” Award.

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