Moth­er for Dinner

  • Review
By – January 4, 2021

Book edi­tor Sev­enth Seltzer needs to find a mem­oir he can pub­lish. The man­u­scripts all seem awful­ly nar­row, though. He’s just read one, for instance, by a Jew­ish-Fourth-Wave-Les­bian-Social­ist-Pro-Immi­gra­tion-Anti-Vax-Lat­inx-Amer­i­can. Those iden­ti­ty-cen­tered sto­ries seem to be pop­ping up every­where — which exas­per­ates Sev­enth, for whom a nar­row trib­al iden­ti­ty has always been a prison he longed to escape.”

And no won­der. His own moth­er is a fierce defend­er of her own eth­nic group and despis­es prac­ti­cal­ly every­body else. That group is the Can­ni­bal-Amer­i­cans. They’re not just any peo­ple who eat peo­ple (a prac­tice Aus­lan­der describes in graph­ic detail), but a per­se­cut­ed minor­i­ty that came from the Old Coun­try with tra­di­tions and rit­u­als they hold dear. Assim­i­la­tion is her ene­my, and she is deter­mined until her dying breath not to break the chain of tradition.

Most of her adult chil­dren, includ­ing Sev­enth, have long since rebelled and fled. They come home as she nears the end of her life out of sen­ti­ment and duty, with an inter­est in their inher­i­tance. When the end comes, they have to decide what to do about her deathbed wish which gives this nov­el its title.

Shalom Auslander’s social satire can be very fun­ny, and his jabs at the New York Times, the pub­lish­ing indus­try, and pop cul­ture are espe­cial­ly enter­tain­ing. Yet anger is nev­er far below the sur­face. The dia­logue often sounds like a pub­lic debate. A few samples:

I love this notion that defend­ing your peo­ple is some­how noble. Trib­al supe­ri­or­i­ty is easy; we’re wired for it.”

Every­thing we know about the mind points to sim­i­lar­i­ties, not dif­fer­ences. Gay, straight, black, white, West­ern, East­ern, ancient, mod­ern — our emo­tion­al wiring is the same.”

Aus­lan­der him­self left an insu­lar com­mu­ni­ty for a more cos­mopoli­tan life. He found an Amer­i­ca where trib­al­ism and nation­al­ism are wide­spread, and where pre­serv­ing group cus­toms is more appre­ci­at­ed than are the sim­i­lar­i­ties among all human beings. That might explain the fierce­ness of his satire.

This nov­el, a dar­ing thought exper­i­ment, has panache and imag­i­na­tion to spare. How much you enjoy it may depend on how much appetite you have for the par­tic­u­lar dish­es it serves.

Discussion Questions