Lynn Melnick has reviewed books for Publishers Weekly and Boston Review, and has published poetry in Boston Review, Paris Review, Crowd, and elsewhere. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband and daughters.
A Bad Decision
Review of The Decision by Reuben Bibi (XLibris, 2006).
What becomes of a marriage when a traumatic event causes drastic and divisive changes to a couple's core beliefs? How much of oneself can or should a person sacrifice for the sake of a marriage and a family? These are the central questions behind Reuben Bibi's The Decision, and they are questions with complicated and often heartrending answers. The trouble with this book is that, despite a set-up that in the best (or even average) hands could be occupied with richly drawn characters and true-to-life intricacies of reason and emotion, The Decision is largely a vehicle for Bibi to present Judaism as the one true religion--the story itself is merely the springboard for a book-long lecture. In fact, the author mentions in his publicity letter that he believes he has written a primer as to why Judaism is the only logical religious faith.
The novel concerns Manhattanite Michael Klein, a secular Jew who knows little about his religious heritage and is happily married to Catholic-raised Susan D'Angelo. Throughout their courtship they believed that their differing backgrounds would never be an issue, as neither of them was very religious and both respected the others' traditions. Trouble (and a convenient plot device!) comes in the form of deadly bacterial infection, namely botulism, which strikes their baby son Eric when his older sister Jennie innocently feeds him tainted honey. The family is understandably thrown into a tailspin when they are faced with the horrifying prospect of losing their dear son. Susan reacts by turning strongly back to the religion of her youth, and she is devastated that baby Eric has never been baptized. The discomfort Michael feels at his wife's renewed faith grows stronger and stronger until he finds himself on a much different path and he eventually becomes an Orthodox Jew.
Without giving too much away, I will say that both Michael and Susan each ultimately choose their faith over their family unit.
Because the plot set-up occurs in the opening chapters, the rest of the novel shifts back and forth between Susan's efforts (along with those of her parents and the family priest) to convince Michael to convert to Catholicism, and Michael's rejection of Catholicism's history and teachings. Michael's transformation is aided by Isaac, a walking encyclopedia of religious knowledge whom Michael just happens to meet at the hospital early in the novel.
Like many characters in The Decision, Isaac doesn't engage in dialogue, he lectures: "There's another problem which I want to address that affects Christianity," he pronounces in a typical bit of pontification, "The Christian religion took on the words of the Old Testament as the foundation of the New Testament, but they interpret the words literally, which is not the way they were intended to be understood. That makes their position in the face of scientific discoveries problematic as well." (While some Christian traditions do read the Bible as literal--as do some Jews--the rest see it as open to interpretaton. So this view of Bibi's is a gross simplification.)
This book was admittedly written with a clear agenda, and, judging from the sloppy, uninteresting sentences, from the descriptive passages lifted from websites (that of a restaurant review on CitySearch and that of the American Museum of Natural History, for example, as Bibi explains in his long "Endnotes" section) and from the dialogue that never seems natural, the author wasn't all that concerned with literary merit. There are countless books out there that present Judaism in a beautiful light, without degrading or distorting others' beliefs. Bibi had no need to diminish Catholicism in order to build up Judaism.
The novel ends with Michael coming to the realization that a family has to "choose either Judaism or Catholicism, but not both. The two could not exist in the same home." To a Jewish woman happily coexisting in the same home as a Catholic man, I found The Decision to read like little more than a long-winded, sloppy discourse against interfaith marriage.