This affecting novel by prize-winning Israeli author Savyon Liebrecht has two distinct parts. The first is set in the 1980s, beginning when the narrator, Micha, is nine years old and meeting his favorite uncle’s prospective bride, Adella, for the first time. The second takes place when Micha, now forty, is invited back to Israel by his aunt Adella. He’s been living in Los Angeles for twenty-four years, ever since a rift in the family severed all contact between his nuclear family and his Israeli relatives.
Micha starts his life as a member of a large and close Persian Jewish community in Israel, where he feels “unwavering confidence in the power of the family — a safety net spun of steel struts and love.” Adella, who is eighteen when they first meet, is a Persian Jewish orphan with a limp and poor eyesight. Because of her lower social standing and physical deficits, she’s considered an appropriate candidate to marry Micha’s sweet, thirty-eight-year-old Uncle Moshe, who’s suffering from an unnamed nervous disorder and developmental disability.
The first part of the book introduces us to a nostalgic adult Micha, who’s a successful ghostwriter. He recalls a family gathering at which he was the only one of his relatives to extend any kindness to the ostracized and isolated Adella. Despite the coldness and cruelty of the extended family, Micha developed a close bond with Adella, who later invited him to be her shushbin (translated here as “bridesman”) to escort her to the chuppah at her wedding. Yet his infatuation with Adella, which his mother discouraged, waned as he entered his adolescent years.
In the book’s second part, Micha returns to Israel at Adella’s request, where he is assailed by memories from his early life — a life from which he has been completely cut off. The resourceful and talented Adella, now known as Adel, is a successful clothing designer. Like Micha, she’s estranged from the family. She shares with him her life story, filling in the details about all the slights and humiliations visited on her by his numerous aunts and uncles. As in other works by Liebrecht, The Bridesman focuses on a marginalized woman chafing against her demeaned status in a patriarchal Israeli society.
During this adult encounter, Adel tells Micha about an early rendezvous they shared, upending his conception of their past. In this way, she gifts the ghostwriter a story of his own to tell, in exchange for the disquieting offering he unwittingly gave her twenty-four years earlier.
This is a slim, haunting novel about memory and storytelling. Micha spends much of the second part of the book readjusting his conception of his own history and imagining how he will craft Adella’s tale into a narrative. The book ends in meta fashion, while Micha is on a flight home to Los Angeles. He writes what will become one of the opening paragraphs of The Bridesman itself.
Lauren Gilbert is Director of Public Services at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, where she manages the Lillian Goldman Reading Room and Ackman & Ziff Family Genealogy Institute and arranges and moderates online book discussions.