Paper is White

  • Review
By – December 10, 2018

This is a nov­el about women: moth­ers, daugh­ters, grand­moth­ers and lovers — their sto­ries told through inter­twined nar­ra­tives of queer and Jew­ish mem­o­ry. The year is 1997, just before legal same-sex mar­riage began to seem pos­si­ble in the Unit­ed States. The story’s pro­tag­o­nist, Ellen, and her girl­friend Francine have decid­ed to get mar­ried any­way, but find them­selves with­out prece­dent, unsure what makes a les­bian mar­riage a mar­riage. Mean­while Ellen, who works for a non­prof­it record­ing oral his­to­ry inter­views with Holo­caust sur­vivors, becomes fas­ci­nat­ed with a mys­te­ri­ous client, Anya, to whom she feels drawn at first by mem­o­ries of her beloved grand­moth­er and then by a sus­pi­cion that Anya has an unspo­ken les­bian past of her own.

The nov­el hinges on things left unspo­ken: Ellen’s nar­ra­tion returns sev­er­al times to the motif of the evil eye and the old folk belief that to speak joy out loud is to invite its destruc­tion. This unwill­ing­ness to speak either of joy or grief is what Ellen feels is her deep­est con­nec­tion to a Jew­ish past. Her fam­i­ly, in Amer­i­ca since the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, have assim­i­lat­ed to the degree that she wor­ries not only about how her par­ents will react to her mar­ry­ing a woman, but also that they might think the cer­e­mo­ny is too Jewish.”

In plan­ning a wed­ding that both breaks with tra­di­tion and needs the strength of tra­di­tion to bol­ster it, Ellen seems to feel root­less; it’s this root­less­ness that draws her to Anya. Not look­ing for a les­bian Jew­ish past, not even con­sid­er­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty that she might find one, Ellen stum­bles upon one all the same, a sto­ry liv­ing in the silent spaces between the things that Anya says out loud. Anya cru­cial­ly nev­er speaks the whole truth, instead imply­ing it through strate­gic changes of sub­ject and care­ful choice of words.

It is an unspo­ken con­nec­tion between queer women, across gen­er­a­tions, that allows Ellen to give voice to what Anya does not say. A clan­des­tine search for the woman from Anya’s past seems to draw Ellen, para­dox­i­cal­ly, through fear of root­less­ness toward hope for the future. Uncov­er­ing Anya’s truth helps her speak her own truth aloud.

The nov­el begins with the shat­ter­ing of fam­i­lies — the death of Ellen’s grand­moth­er, her clients’ mem­o­ries of the Holo­caust — and ends with the build­ing of a new fam­i­ly, three gen­er­a­tions of gay women brought togeth­er in cel­e­bra­tion. The dis­cov­ery of Anya’s impos­si­ble past allows Ellen to imag­ine, and then cre­ate, her own impos­si­ble future with Francine. A sto­ry that start­ed in lone­li­ness and melan­choly ends in tears of joy, all of the secrets spread out in the sun­light like the hand-quilt­ed chup­pah beneath which Ellen and Francine are married.

Sacha Lamb is the author of Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist When the Angels Left the Old Coun­try. Their next nov­el, The For­bid­den Book, is com­ing this fall from Levine Queri­do. Sacha can be found on Insta­gram at

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