The Right Thing to Do at the Time

Dov Zeller
  • Review
By – June 19, 2018

Dov Zeller’s The Right Thing to Do at the Time is a delight­ful­ly Yid­dish-influ­enced, gen­der-swapped inter­pre­ta­tion of Pride and Prej­u­dice, set in present-day New York City. In place of Lizzie Ben­nett, with her busy­body moth­er and absent­mind­ed intel­lec­tu­al father, we meet hap­less, trans­gen­der Ari. Ari is a com­ic vic­tim of cir­cum­stance; he’s foiled by his father’s ambi­tions as a match­mak­er, his boss’s con­tempt, his vio­lin teacher’s insis­tence that he has tal­ent — and of course the scorn of the beau­ti­ful, wealthy Ms. Helen Zonker­man. Ari’s phi­los­o­phy-pro­fes­sor moth­er is sar­cas­tic and dis­tant, much like the father in Pride and Prej­u­dice, and the reck­less younger sib­ling role of Lydia Ben­nett is tak­en by Ari’s broth­er, who plays in a klezmer band. Instead of balls and din­ners, the char­ac­ters cross paths at bar mitz­vahs and seders, but the romance, the humil­i­a­tion of tact­less fam­i­ly mem­bers, and the bit­ing obser­va­tions of social types remain from Austen’s original.

Although the book’s struc­ture loose­ly fol­lows Pride and Prej­u­dice, The Right Thing to Do at the Time is more mean­der­ing, with a con­ver­sa­tion­al tone that recalls Yid­dish clas­sics like Tales of Mendele the Book-Ped­dler. The sto­ry is dream­like, draw­ing out the mag­ic inher­ent in coin­ci­dence. For the read­er look­ing for a more straight­for­ward plot, this may be a stum­bling block, but it works well if what one wants is a slow-paced ramble.

The nar­ra­tive is punc­tu­at­ed with fre­quent inter­ludes into the shared mem­o­ries of Ari and his best friend, Itche — usu­al­ly through rem­i­nis­cences of sum­mer camp, which Ari remem­bers as the site of ear­ly humil­i­a­tion, as the only trans­gen­der attendee. Zeller’s han­dling of Ari’s gen­der is refresh­ing­ly nat­u­ral­is­tic. The com­e­dy of his exis­tence as a noo­dle” (as his fam­i­ly names him) includes the every­day moments of mor­bid humor which plague those of us who do not fit society’s expec­ta­tions. Par­tic­u­lar­ly mem­o­rable is one laugh-out-loud scene of awk­ward com­e­dy in a JCC lock­er room, involv­ing a cer­tain sil­i­cone appendage and the life-sav­ing obliv­i­ous­ness of oth­ers. Jews have always laughed at the hor­rors that plague us: to see this mode of humor applied to trans life is delightful.

Like Austen or Mendele, Zeller brings his char­ac­ters to a pleas­ant con­clu­sion in which love con­quers mis­un­der­stand­ings and parental med­dling alike. The hap­less hero is left hap­py, and the read­er like­wise. It’s a mechayeh.

Sacha Lamb is the author of Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award final­ist When the Angels Left the Old Coun­try. Their next nov­el, The For­bid­den Book, is com­ing this fall from Levine Queri­do. Sacha can be found on Insta­gram at

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