The Major­i­ty: A Novel

  • Review
By – September 11, 2023

The Supreme Court has changed so much recent­ly that it’s hard to believe that, just three years ago, Ruth Bad­er Gins­berg was still alive. By the time she died at eighty-sev­en, Amer­i­ca had been fol­low­ing her health with bat­ed breath for years. Sylvia Olin Bern­stein, the nar­ra­tor and pro­tag­o­nist of Eliz­a­beth L. Silver’s excel­lent nov­el The Major­i­ty, finds her­self in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion. In Silver’s uni­verse, Bern­stein is an Asso­ciate Jus­tice of the Supreme Court and the first woman to sit the bench. Half of the Unit­ed States is wait­ing for me to die,” she writes. The oth­er half stand by, can­dles in hand, pray­ing for me to hang on.” What fol­lows is Bernstein’s nar­ra­tion of her life sto­ry — par­tic­u­lar­ly the lit­tle-known, inti­mate details. Bern­stein (Sylvie to her friends) is a fic­tion­al­ized ver­sion of the Noto­ri­ous RBG. But Silver’s artis­tic achieve­ment is that Sylvie is a com­plex, fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter in her own right. Love and admi­ra­tion for Gins­berg will bring many read­ers to The Major­i­ty, but Sylvie will keep them turn­ing the pages. 

Sylvie is a high­ly obser­vant pre­teen in 1949 Brook­lyn. She is unafraid to ques­tion oth­ers, but she is also will­ing to absorb the lessons about enact­ing social change that her moth­er and her cousin Mar­i­ana, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, try hard to impart. Lat­er, as a stu­dent at Har­vard Law, she finds that her apti­tude in the class­room some­times con­flicts with her strong sense of jus­tice, espe­cial­ly when it comes to women’s rights. She must fluc­tu­ate between express­ing her­self and main­tain­ing deco­rum in order to fight for change from with­in the system. 

When she is dubbed The Con­temp­tu­ous SOB,” she dis­likes how rad­i­cal the moniker is — even though the per­son who assigned it to her insists that being rad­i­cal is a good thing. The unin­tend­ed, some­times trag­ic con­se­quences of Sylvie’s con­ces­sions leave the read­er won­der­ing if she could have avoid­ed some suf­fer­ing had she been more rad­i­cal­ly demon­stra­tive in her per­son­al life, espe­cial­ly as a moth­er, wife, and friend.

But of course, it is not that sim­ple. Sylvie is a bril­liant legal mind. She helps bring about impor­tant change. She needs to have her career and her fam­i­ly, and her attempts and fail­ures to bal­ance the two bring a uni­ver­sal­i­ty to her sto­ry. If there is one thing miss­ing from the nov­el, it is get­ting to watch Sylvie try a case. We see her skill in con­ver­sa­tions with her friends, fam­i­ly, and mentor/​nemesis Dean Mack­lowe, but not much in the court­room. Per­haps Sil­ver left the intense court­room scenes out because we’ve seen some­thing sim­i­lar before, in Gins­berg. Ulti­mate­ly, this is not RBG’s sto­ry; it’s Sylvie’s. And that is a very good thing.

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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