Good on Paper: A Novel

  • Review
December 23, 2015

Don’t be fooled by the chick-lit-sound­ing title of Rachel Cantor’s sec­ond nov­el, Good on Paper. Much more than a beach read, this book a high­ly-craft­ed, mul­ti-lay­ered, com­plex sto­ry that prompts the read­er to ques­tion the line between fic­tion and reality.

Shi­ra Greene is a temp work­er and a sin­gle moth­er rais­ing her daugh­ter, Andi, with the help of her old col­lege friend Ahmad. She’s also a Ph.D. washout. Her the­sis on Dante was near­ly bril­liant — until life got in the way. Shi­ra suf­fers from the wounds of her mother’s aban­don­ment of her when she was a child, her father’s sui­cide, and a freak acci­dent that killed Ahmed’s best friend. Unable to cope with the com­pound­ing loss­es, Shi­ra retreats into a com­fort­able safe­ty of mediocrity.

So it comes as a shock when last year’s Nobel Prize win­ner, esteemed Ital­ian author Romei, calls Shi­ra for help in trans­lat­ing a sto­ry he’s writ­ing based on Dante’s La Vita Nuo­va (“new life” in Ital­ian). Can­tor con­structs Good on Paper so that it mir­rors Dante’s famous love sto­ry about Beat­rice. Luck­i­ly, the read­er doesn’t need to be a Ph.D. stu­dent on Dante to under­stand the clever design. Shi­ra tells us that dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with a friend, I described… what I con­sid­ered to be Vita Nuova’s myth­ic struc­ture (but refrained from offer­ing a copy of the essay in which I elab­o­rat­ed on the the­o­ry): Call, Thresh­old, Decep­tion, Muse, Death, Test, and Return.”

As Shi­ra attempts to trans­late Romei’s work, she finds the task ever more con­fus­ing and even alarm­ing at times. Some of Cantor’s most inter­est­ing and thought-pro­vok­ing writ­ing takes place as she lay­ers the stress­es of trans­la­tion on Shi­ra. It was as if Romei were writ­ing in two lan­guages at once, as if two sto­ries were play­ing them­selves out togeth­er. Words that appeared relat­ed, words that usu­al­ly con­fused read­ers with their non-cor­re­spon­dence, were mirac­u­lous­ly made cog­nate, rec­on­ciled by the all-pow­er­ful poet — but why?” Shira’s ques­tion makes us won­der what turns of our own lives might be played out in two ver­sions: the one we think we under­stand, and anoth­er, untrans­lat­able form.

Can­tor is adept in her use of dia­log, which appears with­out punc­tu­a­tion. Does she do this because the quo­ta­tions aren’t authen­tic? Or because the punc­tu­a­tion is a dis­trac­tion? That’s for the read­er to decide. The voice of Andi, Shira’s daugh­ter, is par­tic­u­lar­ly well-craft­ed; Can­tor avoids the child­ish lan­guage often used in por­tray­als of chil­dren. Ben­ny, too, emerges with a strong voice that coun­ters Shira’s.

Good on Paper is at once a philo­soph­i­cal inquiry, a fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter study, and a cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ry. The end of the nov­el, rather than devolv­ing into lit­er­ary dra­ma, inten­si­fies in ener­gy. As Shi­ra explains to Ben­ny, the hero even­tu­al­ly has to come around though, or there can be no sto­ry.” In this book, it’s the hero’s jour­ney that will keep you captivated.

Relat­ed Content:

Inter­view with Rachel Cantor

by Elise Coop­er

Fans of A High­ly Unlike­ly Sce­nario, or a Neet­sa Piz­za Employ­ee’s Guide to Sav­ing the World: A Nov­el will rec­og­nize Rachel Can­tor’s sig­na­ture pen­chant for tales of love, uncon­ven­tion­al fam­i­lies, search of self, and the mys­ter­ies of lan­guage in Good on Paper, a sto­ry about a lost writer inex­plic­a­bly invit­ed by a renowned, Nobel Prize-win­ning schol­ar to trans­late his new man­u­script — which may not be all that it seems.

Elise Coop­er: You have writ­ten short sto­ries in the past, why write Good on Paper as a novel?

Rachel Can­tor: I enjoy writ­ing short sto­ries. In this case, I thought about a plot involv­ing a group of expa­tri­ate friends who grew up in Rome togeth­er, and I was writ­ing their sto­ry it just got big­ger and big­ger. It became so large it turned into a nov­el. At first I felt I was not up to writ­ing a nov­el and saw myself sole­ly as a short sto­ry author: I kept refer­ring to the book as an N.”!

EC: This is the first nov­el you wrote, but not the first one you pub­lished. Correct?

RC: When I sold my two books to the pub­lish­er, they chose to pub­lish the more recent man­u­script ahead of Good on Paper which I had writ­ten ear­li­er. A High­ly Unlike­ly Sce­nario does not have much in com­mon with Good on Paper. It is a light­heart­ed fan­ta­sy about Jew­ish mys­tics and takes place in cur­rent times. 

EC: What would you say are the key themes to Good on Paper?

RC: It touch­es a lot of dif­fer­ent ques­tions: moth­er-daugh­ter ties, friend­ships, for­give­ness, how to love, and can some­one rein­vent them­selves? I guess if I had to boil it down to one issue I would choose relationships.

EC: You write about three loca­tions, New York, Rome, and India. Why?

RC: Main­ly because I was very impres­sion­able when I was young! I lived in Rome between the ages of ten and fif­teen, in New York when I was around the age of twen­ty-two, and in India in my twen­ties. Like­wise, I have Good on Papers main char­ac­ter, Shi­ra, liv­ing in Rome as an expa­tri­ate, trav­el­ing to India, and resid­ing in New York. These three set­tings always reap­pear in my fic­tion, because they are an essen­tial part of my imagination. 

EC: What did you mean by the fol­low­ing pow­er­ful quote from the nov­el: Yes, I’m sad, but I’m going to give that per­son I love anoth­er chance, a chance to explain them­selves, to do better.”

RC: For­give­ness is cen­tral to my book. There is a part of the book about the idea that inno­cence can be dam­aged but also recov­ered. My under­stand­ing of the Jew­ish con­cept of teshu­vah is about return­ing to one’s inno­cent self, although some call it repen­tance. Shi­ra is going through such a jour­ney. She must be coura­geous and allow peo­ple to be a part of her life again. Can she love again with­out shut­ting peo­ple out? Now, in her mid-for­ties, can she allow her­self to for­give those who have hurt her even if it means being sad while doing so?

EC: What would you like read­ers to get out of this book?

RC: I hope they get caught up in the mys­tery of why she was cho­sen to be the trans­la­tor for this Nobel Prize win­ning author, Romei. He ends up spurring Shira’s jour­ney, con­tribut­ing to chang­ing her life. I hope they go on this jour­ney with Shi­ra and cheer her on as she decides to give the peo­ple she loves anoth­er chance, as she strug­gles to over­come the will to shut down and shut out those who have done her wrong.

Elise Coop­er lives in Los Ange­les and has writ­ten numer­ous nation­al secu­ri­ty arti­cles sup­port­ing Israel. She writes book reviews and inter­views for many dif­fer­ent out­lets includ­ing the Mil­i­tary Press.

Relat­ed Content:

Discussion Questions