Fic­tion

The Pes­simists

Bethany Ball

  • Review
By – November 15, 2021

Read­ers who enjoyed Bethany Ball’s What to Do About the Solomons will find myr­i­ad plea­sures in her sec­ond nov­el. Her debut revealed Ball as the kind of rare cul­tur­al out­sider” who mirac­u­lous­ly man­ages to get the tex­ture of Israel just right on the page. Set clos­er to home, The Pes­simists offers haunt­ing­ly mem­o­rable char­ac­ters, and hard-won truths, and when it comes to cap­tur­ing the zeit­geist of our era, it has few rivals among any recent nov­el. In a taut and absorb­ing nar­ra­tive that often reads like a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, the author nim­bly reminds us that every utopi­an veneer con­tains a strong dystopi­an poten­tial. Per­haps even more affect­ing­ly, it is a pro­found­ly orig­i­nal explo­ration of peo­ple falling in and out of love, with peo­ple, with a place.

The nov­el deft­ly bal­ances the sto­ries of sev­er­al fam­i­lies in the afflu­ent com­mu­ni­ty of Som­ser­set, Con­necti­cut. In por­tray­ing the deca­dence of priv­i­lege, The Pes­simists is often quite fun­ny, yet Ball pur­sues her themes of soci­etal malaise, parental anx­i­ety and mar­i­tal dis­con­tent with sen­si­tiv­i­ty and high moral seri­ous­ness. Along­side episodes of sharp satire, much of the nar­ra­tive is informed by del­i­cate and sen­si­tive por­tray­als of each character’s inner emo­tion­al world. The notable excep­tion to those rich inte­ri­or­i­ties is Agnes, the guru-like direc­tor of the Petra School who, though she wields so much pow­er and influ­ence on the par­ents and chil­dren alike, remains a tan­ta­liz­ing cipher until the chill­ing conclusion.

Ball is espe­cial­ly good at get­ting at what fes­ters just beneath the deep attach­ments between friends, the under­cur­rents of their unre­quit­ed desires and resent­ments. Or, for that mat­ter, those who can nev­er ful­ly belong; for her part, Rachel, the Jew­ish woman who finds her­self increas­ing­ly lone­ly in both her mar­riage and Som­er­set itself, fret­ting that she didn’t under­stand Wasp sub­ur­ban lan­guage or its rules.” A trans­plant from New York City who had hoped for a health­i­er envi­ron­ment for her chil­dren, she recoils from the lone­ly spook­i­ness of night in the sub­urbs.” And it’s an espe­cial­ly inter­est­ing, even brave choice that Ball por­trays her nov­el­ist char­ac­ter Vir­ginia as so dis­tract­ed by the life of the imag­i­na­tion (though also, to be fair, a seri­ous health scare) that she over­looks, or refus­es to see, the loom­ing threat in her own home.

While some might find the treat­ment of anti­semitism oblique, care­ful read­ers will rec­og­nize that its stain is in fact the very heart of the nov­el, the rot­ten core of a self-sat­is­fied, numb, and com­pla­cent enclave of priv­i­lege. Fast-paced and brim­ming with intrigue, what most impress­es is Ball’s respect for each of her char­ac­ters, espe­cial­ly their capac­i­ty for growth and trans­for­ma­tion. Bristling with intel­li­gence and mem­o­rable prose, this is a tru­ly vital nov­el for our inaus­pi­cious times, for any­one who doubts the life they are cre­at­ing for them­selves or their chil­dren. In short, The Pes­simists is a gem of a nov­el that bril­liant­ly weaves togeth­er the threads of each family’s sto­ry with com­pas­sion, dis­qui­et­ing notes of dread, and gen­tle humor. It all adds up to an emo­tion­al­ly insight­ful and pro­found­ly thought-pro­vok­ing tapes­try that will sure­ly leave its read­ers eager for more.

Ranen Omer-Sher­man is the JHFE Endowed Chair in Juda­ic Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Louisville and his lat­est book is Imag­in­ing the Kib­butz: Visions of Utopia in Lit­er­a­ture & Film.

Discussion Questions