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.