The Book of Nor­man: A Novel

  • Review
By – September 18, 2017

The Book of Nor­man, a humor­ous fam­i­ly dra­ma, chron­i­cles the life of Nor­man Gould, a rab­bini­cal school dropout whose broth­er, Jon, has recent­ly become inter­est­ed in con­vert­ing to Mor­monism. Both sons strug­gle with reveal­ing their new reli­gious rebel­lions to their Jew­ish moth­er, a recent wid­ow who already has a boyfriend ten months after the death of her hus­band, which Nor­man is less than thrilled about. The nov­el revolves around the state of Nor­man and Jon’s deceased father’s soul. Jon and Nor­man argue over whether their father should be con­vert­ed to Mor­monism after his death in order to have a Mor­mon after­life, which Jon prefers, or whether Nor­man should say Kad­dish to keep his father’s soul in a Jew­ish after­life, even though he is pes­simistic about the exis­tence of any type of after­life. The sta­tus and loca­tion of a person’s soul seems to car­ry a heav­ier sig­nif­i­cance in the Mor­mon faith than the Jew­ish faith, accord­ing to Jon and Mor­mon elders. Despite hav­ing dropped out of rab­bini­cal school and not believ­ing in souls in the first place, Nor­man becomes pas­sion­ate about the state of his father’s soul, which ends up per­ma­nent­ly alter­ing his rela­tion­ship with his brother.

Nor­man and Jon are home for the sum­mer and are expect­ed to work at a Jew­ish day camp, sur­round­ed by the com­mu­ni­ty they are both try­ing to avoid. At camp, they meet two beau­ti­ful Israeli female coun­selors. These Israelis become a sex­u­al obses­sion for Nor­man, whose recent break” from Judaism becomes an excuse for misog­y­nis­tic talk. His broth­er Jon has gone in the oppo­site direc­tion, avoid­ing look­ing at the Israeli women when they are scant­i­ly clad and refus­ing to join in with Norman’s con­stant remarks about their bod­ies. Jon notes that there is some­thing unusu­al about the women, though, due to their iron­ic turnout at cer­tain places and events that are impor­tant to Nor­man, includ­ing a Shab­bat minyan ser­vice and a strange yet tense bas­ket­ball game between Mor­mons and Jews to deter­mine the sta­tus of his father’s soul. Nor­man con­cludes that they must be angels and refers to them as such through­out the book. The angels,” through their good looks, charm, and ambi­gu­i­ty, add a mys­ti­cal ele­ment to the nov­el that is meant to be humor­ous, although some­times comes across as bizarre.

Author Allan Appel has suc­cess­ful­ly brought read­ers into the mind of Nor­man, a con­fused, young man try­ing to sort out his iden­ti­ty at a time of loss and fam­i­ly change. Many read­ers will find humor in Norman’s attempt­ed escapes from Judaism, includ­ing his indul­gence in cheese­burg­ers and vir­tu­al­ly every­thing non-kosher as a means of rebel­lion and self-search. Although, ulti­mate­ly, due to the pow­er of prayer and reli­gious study, Nor­man and Jon both real­ize the impos­si­bil­i­ty of stray­ing far from their Jew­ish roots and culture.

Read Allan Appel’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

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