“The Tenderest of Strings” by Steven Schwartz. Raleigh, N.C.: Regal House Publishing, 2022. 262 pages. $9.99.
We humans have been living together in societies for a long time — at least a long time in our terms — and have concocted some (almost) universal norms about what is acceptable social behavior. And we have come up with ways that people who break those rules should act in order to right the “wrong” they have committed — to regain their status in society.
Ardith, the wife-mother in this novel, flouted one of those conventions. I won’t tell you what she did — I don’t want to give away too much of the plot — but this is what she said about her own behavior: “I betrayed my husband, my children, and my own values by doing so.”
She refused to take advantage of the relatively easy — albeit, controversial, and to some, morally repugnant — way of undoing her misstep. And telling her husband and others what she had done must be one of the most extreme examples of a death wish in all of literature.
Her behavior certainly rocked her family to its core.
But even before that, the Rosenfelds had issues — big issues.
The family had moved from Chicago to Welton, Colo., a small town, 60 miles northeast of Denver. Why? You know, small-town/rural living is less expensive, the vistas are spectacular, back to nature and to basics are seductive concepts.
They live in a trashed-out house, an inexpensive fixer-upper that husband-father Reuben said he would clean up and remodel but hadn’t. A former copy editor at the Chicago Tribune, he owned and managed the local paper, the Welton Sentinel.
Ardith is as bad a housekeeper as her husband is a remodeler. Her indolence — her ability to avoid doing what she knows she ought to — is legendary.
Older son Harry suffers from depression and has behavioral problems. His strangeness seems to encourage fellow students and others to physically attack him.
Yes, this was a troubled family even before it encountered its crisis.
I chose to review “The Tenderest of Strings” because the family is Jewish, and I thought the novel would discuss the difficulties of a big-city Jewish family surviving in small-town America.
But that’s not the book’s theme. Apparently, the Rosenfelds’ Jewishness was not much of an impediment to their acculturation into the new environment.
Jews and Judaism only surfaced a few times in the book. Dr. Stein was the new town doctor. She is Jewish and asked Reuben about a synagogue. He said there is one in Fort Collins, but they hadn’t had time to check it out. He didn’t tell her that Harry had been expelled from Hebrew school in Chicago and that they had ignored their other son Jamie’s religious upbringing.
Dr. Stein informed Jamie — he insisted on being called James — about a Jewish environmental group for youngsters in which he could hike, learn about his Jewish heritage and prepare for his bar mitzvah. He enthusiastically joined the group.
That was one sign that, despite all the turmoil and the parents’ shortcomings, the family seemed to be holding its own, and the two sons showed some signs of developing into good, mature people.
I’m not sure what that teaches us. Social norms are overrated? Families can overcome even the highest of barriers? Children can thrive despite bad parenting? Love trumps all?
Those are a few questions you might ponder while reading this fascinating novel.
Aaron Leibel’s memoir, Figs and Alligators: An American Immigrant’s Life in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s (Chickadee Prince Books), is available for purchase online.