Although it’s set in 2018, Off to Join the Circus borrows its title from a phrase that is pretty much extinct in the twenty-first century. Deborah Kalb’s novel is about the Pinsky family, and it’s one of those rare books that skillfully interweaves multiple points of view. With the exception of Aunt Adele, who ran away at age sixteen in 1954, each member of the family gets a whole chapter to tell his or her story. When Adele’s brother Howard asked their grieving parents where she went, they told him that she “ran off to join the circus” — an explanation that was used at a time when circuses still came to town and had a place in American culture. It was a metaphor for escaping to a completely new life. Now, the Pinskys use the word to describe an irresponsible, impulsive style, the kind that Aunt Adele betrayed.
Sixty-four years after her disappearance, Adele suddenly returns. Even as she elbows her way into Howie’s family, she remains an outsider who never really reveals what she was doing during her absent years. Each of the Pinskys reacts to her and changes in subtle ways, thanks to her forceful, egotistical temperament.
Living comfortably in the D.C. suburbs, the Pinskys are a Jewish family whose obsessive closeness and love serve as an obvious contrast to Adele’s history of abandonment. The oldest of the three adult daughters spends years as a single mother, dependent on the help of her willing parents. The youngest teaches at the school her nephews attend. The middle daughter is the only one who fits the family definition of “circus,” in that she led a wild youth and continues to be careless and impractical. But her place in this adoring family is secure nonetheless. Readers will recognize the difference between Howie’s wife, who is laser-focused on her children, and Adele’s own breezy self-involvement.
The Pinskys are firmly grounded in the twenty-first century, using cellphones, doing yoga, and watching Rachel Maddow. Their conversations are very Jewish: they discuss bar mitzvahs past and present, a possible bris, and Saturday shopping with non-Jewish spouses. Adele’s abrupt return to Howie may be the novel’s inciting incident, but the real story is how the family functions — first without her, and then with her.
Beth Dwoskin is a retired librarian with expertise in Yiddish literature and Jewish folk music.