Chani and Baruch do not know one another, but they are about to wed.
Baruch Levy is obedient and religious, and makes his parents proud with his keen Torah study, until the day he announces the name of the girl he’d like to court. A quick forbidden glance to the women’s section enthralled him with Chani Kaufman, and he won’t take no for an answer.
Nineteen years old and increasingly frustrated with the obligations of her Ultra-Orthodox community, Chani follows the only permissible route of escape — getting engaged. Though she finds Baruch attractive in his earnest, if fumbling, attempts at courting, she has no idea what to expect next.
As the couple navigates their path of parents, matchmakers, and mikvehs, their closest confidants and friends explore the romantic and sexual relationships possible within and without marriage. Rebbetzin Zilberman remembers the sacrifices she made for the man she loves, while Avromi explores a world previously forbidden. On the outside, these characters are obedient and true to the traditions they value, but from inside passions ignite and regrets long hidden are reawakened, no longer willing to be ignored.
Long-listed for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, Harris’s book offers a voyeuristic look at a realistically imagined Ultra-Othodox community and how it approaches love, marriage, and individuality. Her characters elicit sympathy and display color where our perception is often only in black and white. While her take can be harsh — for example, “bovine” housewives are seen buried under the weight of unplanned families— Harris also offers glimpses of beauty in the core family values, soothing relationships, and generous hands that bolster Chani in her moments to shine.
The intertwined story lines offer varied approaches to the main themes. However, while the characters’ interactions with each other— the Rebbetzin agreeing to comply with her husband’s request that she not ride a bicycle, or Chani battling the strident Mrs. Levy — are touch¬ing, funny, shocking, and overall emotionally evocative, the players’ inner lives remain a mystery. Each move seems predetermined, and we are not given enough access to understand why each chooses the small and major paths they do. Ultimately, the removed narrative voice and mysterious pivotal choices confirm that the novel is written by, and for, outsiders.
Related Content: Read reviews of other Man Booker Prize finalists and winner: The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant, The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Read Eve Harris’s Visiting Scribe Posts
A Glimpse into the English Charedi School System
The Things I Miss About Israel
Find Shira Schindel’s interview with Eve Harris here.