cover image When We Were Bad

When We Were Bad

Charlotte Mendelson, . . Houghton Mifflin, $24 (321pp) ISBN 978-0-618-88343-1

With humor and panache, British writer Mendelson (Love in Idleness ) presents London's Rubin clan, presided over by matriarch Claudia, a brilliant, charismatic London rabbi blessed with zaftig curves and a will of steel. Claudia seems to have molded nebbishy husband Norman and their four children into the perfect family. But as the plodding eldest, Leo, leaves the altar to run off with his mistress, the fault lines are exposed: next-eldest Frances eventually admits to her despair about her dutiful marriage and her lack of maternal feeling, and even colorless Norman turns out to have a guilty secret. Claudia, however, must preserve the myth of a perfect family because it's the basis of her about-to-be published memoir, “a moral and ethical handbook for families of the new millennium.” What makes Mendelson's novel especially naughty are her candid observations about the “crouching, self-loathing way” that many English Jews try to fit into Anglo society while simultaneously maintaining their traditions: Claudia's seder, for example, is a comic set piece of frantic preparation and grim hospitality. But while the social satire is deft, the action upon which Mendelson hangs it veers into farce. And with the introduction of imminent tragedy, the plot abruptly crashes. (Aug.)