November 16, 2011
Review of In the King's Arms: A Novel by Sonia Taitz.
Growing up, we consistently identify (at times reluctantly, at times longingly) with people or groups that reflect our values, religion, interests, race, history... the list goes on. Whether we identify to belong or long to escape that identity for a new one, our past continues to play a role in who we are.
Sonia Taitz's In the King's Arms tells the story of Lily Taub: a Jewish graduate student from New York City's Lower East Side. She's beautiful, intelligent, driven and the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Having grown up hearing the stories of her parents' lives in hiding and in the death camps, she's taught to respect the value of hard work and life itself. She yearns for a place of her own, away from the shadow of her parents' lives as Holocaust survivors. She wants the fun, adventure and romance her safe life hasn't provided thus far. She hopes her new life in Oxford will allow her to escape her controlled, small, Jewish community in favor of a larger, freer one. But what of her status as a Jew? Where does that fit into her plan?
She begins her time at Oxford feeling out of place. She's American, Jewish and certainly not wealthy. Soon, she meets a new friend: Peter. He's a charming, rich, witty British academic. Peter takes her into his group of friends and she finds herself enjoying this new, very different life. One evening at a pub, her eyes meet with a dashing young man, and without a word between them, its love at first sight. She later finds out this man, Julian, is Peter's younger brother.
Peter invites her to spend the Christmas holiday break with his family. She gratefully accepts, thrilled to find she'll see Julian once again. Their first conversational meeting, in a field at his family's estate, is thrilling, quick and passionate
For the next many days, Lily and Julian spend their nights together, away from the watchful eyes of his disapproving and judgmental parents. One evening, Lily's life takes a sharp turn. On New Year's Eve, she's left behind to babysit Peter and Julian's younger brother. Julian briefly leaves the party to be with Lily and while they're together, there's a terrible accident. Everyone places the entirety of the blame on Lily, and she leaves the estate to head back to Oxford.
Back in Oxford, Lily discovers that she's pregnant and must decide what to do next. She's completely alone and thinks it best to leave and head back to the States. Before she decides, she sees Peter and he attempts to convince her to stay. He passes the news of Lily's pregnancy along to Julian who tries to stop her. When he finds out that she's already gone, he sends a letter describing his feelings to her parent's address in the States. Meanwhile, Peter and Lily meet and he convinces her to stay even mentioning that his mother sent him a letter inviting Lily to come stay with them at their estate. However suspicious, she reluctantly agrees. Once there, she innocently discovers that Peter and Julian's parents have only invited her there to convince her to end the pregnancy in order to save themselves from the shame they feel this child would bring to them. Finally, Julian finds her and they talk. He apologizes for abandoning her and declares his love for her. They marry and raise their daughter together.
Lily's story makes the reader think back to his/her own struggle with identity over the years: the struggle to assert oneself past identity based solely on heritage. We are not simply the product of our ancestral history, and yet that history shapes us in ways we can't even imagine. Does marrying someone who is not Jewish mean that Lily has abandoned or somehow betrayed her family and her culture — a culture her parents fought so hard to retain? What about her secular life? Does a focus on the secular diminish her Jewish culture? I wondered what Lily's and Julian's parents thought of the joining of these two very different worlds. How had their experiences in the Europe of the 1940s affected their feelings toward their children's union in the late 1970s?
Taitz's deliciously sculpted tale, addressing themes such as class, religion, history, fear of assimilation, interfaith relationships and anti-Semitism, finds its pace immediately. I found myself devouring the novel, which is a much quicker read than it might initially seem. The chapters are short, overall, and the action brief. Although the language is beautifully shaped, I found myself wanting more. I'll admit that I'm jaded but even the happy ending Taitz delivers didn't faze me. I just wanted more of it. The ending felt rushed and I still feel cheated. The lingering questions of "why, when and how" remain with me.