This is the story of a small group of characters in Madison, Wisconsin whose lives are intertwined through work, family, and romantic associations. The main characters are loosely based on biblical figures from the Story of Esther. “Ellen” is “Esther,” an orphan who lost her parents and is fostered by her cousin “Mose”/“Mordechai”. “Alex” is the superintendent for schools and is the stand-in for King “Ahasuerus.” He was formerly married to “Valerie” (“Vashti”), director of Madison’s Center for Artistic Exchange, but becomes involved with Ellen, who works in daycare. “Hyman,” the new school principal is “Haman” and an anti-Semite who plots the removal of Mose, American History teacher at the progressive school for at-risk children.
This fast paced, contemporary tale demonstrates how each character’s early history informs who they are, how they view the world, and how they respond and interact with others. And though Spark vividly reveals the deleterious and devastating effects that interpersonal relations can create, in delineating each person’s past she almost seems apologetic for individual shortcomings. As she concludes: “So, what of it?… Ellen didn’t know, though at moments she imagined herself and the others as hapless actors, unwittingly cast in some biblical story, where being right meant being rewarded and being rewarded meant demolishing your enemy.