Strangers and Cousins

  • Review
By – October 7, 2019

Leah Hager Cohen’s delight­ful new nov­el begins with a plunge into a five-year-old’s active imag­i­na­tion. The red­coats are com­ing!” yells Pim, the youngest char­ac­ter. Pim uses his child­hood obses­sion with war and bat­tle tac­tics to describe the guests and rel­a­tives descend­ing on his ram­shackle man­sion home in upstate New York, for his much-old­er sister’s wed­ding. Fam­i­ly dra­ma — squab­bles, secrets, betray­als, and uni­fi­ca­tions ensue, but noth­ing on par with Pim’s per­for­ma­tive war.

The Erlend Blu­men­thal clan is, ulti­mate­ly, fam­i­ly. The real threat comes from the Hare­di Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty plan­ning to move into their quaint village.

We learn about the Hare­di, who remain a mys­te­ri­ous force through­out much of the nov­el, through the per­spec­tives of a vari­ety of char­ac­ters — from the sym­pa­thet­ic father Wal­ter, to the more skep­ti­cal teenag­er Tom. But Pim’s inno­cent war­mon­ger­ing high­lights how — when it comes to oth­er­ness, inva­sion, and pro­tec­tion — we are often noth­ing but chil­dren, liv­ing in our imag­ined ideas of what is scary, what is right, and what is exciting.

The con­flict with the Hare­di takes this jaun­ty, often com­ic nov­el to a dark­er place. The two threads are inter­wo­ven seam­less­ly. Lit­tle cousins play, an elder­ly, delu­sion­al aunt moves in and out of her trag­ic past, and the adults dis­cuss the plum­met­ing prop­er­ty val­ues, loss of jobs, and declin­ing school qual­i­ty in near­by areas where Hare­di have moved. They also won­der about reli­gious free­dom, democ­ra­cy, and their own respon­si­bil­i­ties as patri­lin­eal Jews. In addi­tion, bride-to-be Clem pon­ders her own priv­i­lege, which her fiance, a black woman called Dig­gs, has been teach­ing her about, as well as the per­for­ma­tive nature of weddings.

Despite the heavy top­ics, Strangers and Cousins is a quick, light­heart­ed, and thor­ough­ly enter­tain­ing read. Hager Cohen is a won­der with dia­logue, catch­ing authen­tic char­ac­ter beats in thought-pro­vok­ing sen­tences. Clem’s col­lege friends are a fun­ny mix of art­sy Mil­len­ni­al tropes — sex­u­al­ly amor­phous, crafty, iron­ic but sweet, and able to speak about pro­nouns and priv­i­lege eas­i­ly. Their sur­prise appear­ance and take over of the back­yard stress­es out matri­arch Ben­nie, who has her hands full with sprite­ly eight-year-old Mantha,along with the charm­ing, elo­quent, and rapid­ly declin­ing Aunt Glad, and sev­er­al more quirk­i­ly named char­ac­ters. The house, which has been in Bennie’s fam­i­ly for more than a cen­tu­ry and was once the vil­lage post office, is a delight to imag­ine — with its creaky old fur­ni­ture and end­less wings and struc­tur­al problems.

It all might strike some read­ers as a touch too cute, like Rachel Get­ting Mar­ried meets Wes Ander­son. But the truth­ful stick­i­ness of the sit­u­a­tions and the rich charm of the char­ac­ters makes Strangers and Cousins a wel­come, fresh take on the wed­ding nov­el. Change is always going to hap­pen, but some sto­ries and themes will always be worth vis­it­ing — just like sweet, odd­ball cousins.

Jessie Szalay’s writ­ing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Aspara­gus, The For­ward, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Trav­el­er, and as a notable in the Best Amer­i­can Essays of 2017. She lives in Salt Lake City where she teach­es writ­ing in a prison edu­ca­tion program.

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