Despite being the one to suggest that they read it, Gwen was the last to finish reading After Anatevka. She had put it off: work got in the way, or she meant to bring it on the El with her but forgot, or it was lumpy to carry around anyway. Excuses, excuses, she knew. But the fact remained that, on the afternoon when Gwen finally closed the book shut with a satisfying slap, Eleanor was already waiting on the couch.
“Oh, finally,” she said, as Gwen sat up in her chair. “Now we can discuss.”
“Not so fast,” Gwen pulled back. There was much to be digested in the book, and Gwen wanted enough time. “I have to think about it first.”
Eleanor sighed, but grinned. “Fine,” she muttered.
“I think my general thoughts are positive,” Gwen added. “But I wish I had taken notes on specific things in the book, there’s a lot to quote here.”
“What did you think about how it mirrors Fiddler?” Eleanor asked.
Through the door, Dania could overhear the conversation. She had been basically lukewarm about the book, but she was committed to joining in once the inevitable argument between Eleanor and Gwen began, and not a moment earlier.
“What about how it mirrors it?” Gwen asked. “It’s a sequel.”
“But there’s all the flashbacks, right?” Eleanor asked, leaning forward. “There’s a ton of flashbacks to stuff that happens in the show. Scenes that took place offstage. All that conversation about Tzeitel and Chava’s relationship, and the two little girls being more interesting.”
At this, Gwen cast a contrarian eye towards Eleanor.
“Well, slightly more interesting,” she amended. “They sound like real people now.”
“They sound exactly like the other people,” Gwen clarified. “Vocal patterns and style was one of my issues. Every character sounds like every other character. When you get to Nerchinsk and the labor camp, all of Perchik’s friends have the exact same vocal tics. What was the one line – I wish I had taken notes…”
Gwen thumbed through the book, searching for a particular conversation.
“Maybe, but it’s a lot of similar people,” Gwen suggested. “I don’t think stilted dialogue is going to bring down a book entirely.”
“Not entirely, but I noticed,” Gwen said. Her finger scanned the page, before stopping above a line. “Here. This is Shprintze talking, who is…maybe eight? Nine?”
“Younger than Chava, sure.”
“‘I will say,'” Gwen recited, “‘for someone so concerned with giving things away, he sounded very cross.’ What single-digit child uses the phrase ‘I will say?’ ‘Cross?'”
“An educated one, perhaps?” Eleanor said. “Besides, that’s not a terrible line. There’s also good dialogue when Golde is describing the baking of bread, and the two younger girls are stumbling for answers.”
“Sure, but it’s inconsistent,” Gwen said, her fingers treading across the pages again. “There was one legendarily bad line, where was it…”
“I feel like you’re coming into this already set against the book,” Eleanor grumbled, her eyelids drooped. “It’s basically Fiddler On The Roof fanfiction, how can you hate it?”
“You hit the nail on the head, I guess,” Gwen said. “Here. There’s a bit in Chapter 31 when Hodel has a flashback to Tzeitel’s wedding day, and Silber is describing all the different preparations and the new house and her hair, and then out of nowhere Hodel says ––”
Gwen turned the book around so Eleanor could read the line she pointed to.
“‘It is your wedding day!'”
“Repetitive, much?” Gwen asked, and again slapped the book shut.
“Gwen, if everything had to be Pulitzer-worthy to get published, nothing would ever come out.” Eleanor fell back into the couch. Thinking through the book, she began to rally her argument against Gwen’s distaste.
“Generally, it was fine,” Gwen said. “I could point to weak passages, but ultimately, I can point to really strong passages, too. They’re both in there. What it feels like is an author’s first book.”
“Which it is, Gwen.”
“Though it feels that way,” she continued. “Just a little under-polished. As if the ideas underlying the book are good – and they really are good – the writing just isn’t quite there yet.”
“Well, it’s a book. Everything in it is writing. If you got that the ideas are strong, you clearly got something out of it.”
“She has strong worldbuilding throughout,” Gwen added. “It’s clear she did her research.”
“Well, that’s my favorite part about it!” Eleanor quickly jumped in. “Alexandra Silber played Hodel in London, and Tzeitel in New York. So she has all of this research about the time period, and her backstory with her sisters and Golde, and the Jewish diaspora and Russian history and all of it. And it’s all in the book!”
At this, Dania began to slowly move towards the door. Eleanor was circling round to the point she wanted to make, but the discussion had to progress organically. She couldn’t just drop into the conversation.
“There are long passages – hand over the book.” Eleanor, grabbing the book from Gwen, also began to thumb through. “Right at the start of the Perchik section, there’s this long section about the Russian prison system. It’s all fascinating. I feel like another writer might have cut it for not being as interesting or important…”
At this, Eleanor glanced up at Gwen, who seemed to indicate her agreement.
“And yet,” Eleanor continued, “leaving it in gives the book a really distinct researched feel. Here, top of Chapter 21. The Katorga System.”
Sure enough, Silber had included nearly two pages of preamble in the eleven-page chapter to set the scene. The history of Russia’s forced settlers explained the legal purgatory that Hodel and Perchik were soon to enter.
“She does it again in some of the flashbacks, too,” Eleanor added. “Including – all right, I’ll give you one.”
“One what?” Gwen barely looked up.
“One concession: the bread-making scene goes on too long.”
“Exactly!” Gwen said. “I could make actual challah from that description!”
Dania sighed. The subject of the discussion kept changing, but the book was chock-full of discussion fodder. Entire arguments would probably pass, regarding the choppy insertion of Russian and Yiddish phrases into English dialogue, before the subject Dania would entreat upon rose into the air.
“Character work is strong, across the board,” Gwen said. “The characters who return from Fiddler feel consistent with their personalities in the musical, plus a little more depth from stated backstory.”
“The new characters are really interesting, too,” Eleanor agreed. “The one thing about Fiddler is that basically everyone there is a Jew on generally good terms with each other. Except the Russians, natch. But adding into the central narrative The Gentleman, his daughter Irina, Andrey Tenderov, that one guard in the first prison who basically tells his entire life story the moment Hodel reaches out to him…”
“That was quite strange,” Gwen noted.
“I like all of them a lot. It provides a lot of dimension, a larger world for the story to inhabit.”
“Fiddler does the opposite, now that I consider it,” Gwen said. “It’s so local that the interruption of the outside world is nearly presented as a meta-twist. Silber’s world is more open-ended, more encompassing of that Russian violence and torture throughout.”
This was the topic. Dania swept open the door.
“Let’s talk about the violence, shall we?” Dania, closing the door behind her, walked calmly to the couch beside Eleanor.
“What, that it’s intense?” Eleanor asked. “I mean, it’s Russia.”
“But it’s also Fiddler,” Dania added. “Family-friendly Fiddler On The Roof. I think it’s probably safe to say that the expected audience is people who like Fiddler, right?”
“Probably,” Gwen ceded.
“Then why is it so stupidly cruel?” Dania asked. “Like, there’s real murder that happens in this book! And legit torture!”
“And the odd randomly inserted swear words, I’ll agree with that,” Eleanor said. “I think there’s, like, two F-bombs in the book, and they’re not even at impactful moments. It’s just in the dialogue somewhere.”
“Well, there’s also Perchik and Hodel, who both get the crap kicked out of them multiple times,” Dania added. “They literally start with Hodel getting tossed into a dirty jail cell.”
“But does the tone of this book have to match the musical?” Gwen asked. “If you consider it independently – and I do think it works as an independent novel…”
“Does it, though?” Dania asked.
“I think so.”
“Maybe parts of it,” Eleanor suggested, splitting the difference. “Enough of it to hold up, but there’s definitely parts where knowing the musical makes it…I don’t know, better?”
“Yeah, if you like the musical a lot, I think you’d be sorta against actually finding out what happens to Hodel and Perchik,” Dania stated. “Especially considering what happens to Hodel and Perchik at the very end. It’s a lot to take in.”
“Perhaps it’s courting a middle of the road audience,” Gwen said. “If you like Fiddler, Dania, it might be that––”
“But I don’t!” Dania added, bracing herself. “I’m just not that into it! It’s kind of dull, and also kind of three hours long! So the book at least has more stuff happening, but it’s also written like fanfiction!”
“Okay, can we stop using ‘fanfiction’ as a pejorative?” Eleanor asked. “By that logic, A Thousand Acres is just King Lear fanfiction.”
“But isn’t it, partly?” Gwen asked. “Solid AU fanfiction, but still.”
“Maybe After Anatevka has some of the hallmarks of fanfiction,” Eleanor admitted. “The focus on setting over characters and a strange everyone-loves-the-protagonist trend. But generally, I think it’s a fine book.”
“‘Fine’ I can agree with,” Gwen said. “It’s an anomaly, but one to pay attention to: it’s the third generation of a story. First the Sholem Alecheim book, then the Broadway musical, and now another new adaptation of the second version. I’m surprised more musicals haven’t gotten spinoffs in that manner.”
Dania shrugged. “I guess. Maybe if you like Fiddler but wish it had more violence, it’s a recommendation.”
“The musical contains a pogrom,” Eleanor said. “How much more violence to people need?”
“You tell me,” Dania said, eyeing the book again.
Image Credit: NPR