Pearl Abraham's critically acclaimed first novel, The Romance Reader, follows a Hasidic girl caught between the strictures of tradition and the yearnings of her own heart. In her second book, the author tells a different kind of coming-of-age story: Giving Up America charts with heartbreaking assurance the disintegration of a marriage and the loss of faith that inevitably results. Like Abraham's first young heroine, Deena Binet grew up in a strict but loving Hasidic household. Yet when her family returned to Israel after a few years in the United States, Deena stayed behind, and since then has become nothing if not American. She works in advertising, learns to wear jeans and prides herself on remembering the names of rock bands. Even when she marries an Orthodox Jew, she does so against her father's wishes. A Hasidic scholar, he sees that the sum of the Hebrew letters of the couple's names equals the numerical value of the Hebrew word for pain, "which is what this marriage will bring you."
Although her husband, Daniel, keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath, he does so "mechanically," with none of the joy that marked Deena's childhood religious celebrations: "What did remain were the things she couldn't do." Nonetheless, they have been together for seven years before trouble appears. In this case, trouble takes the form of a leggy blonde temp from Daniel's office, a Southern-accented would-be Miss America named Jill. She is, they agree, "fun," in a way none of their other friends are. Together with Jill and her friend Ann the couple tries skiing, takes up dancing--and then Daniel falls in love. As their relationship falls apart, so too does Daniel's attachments to the forms of his faith. He breaks the Sabbath, stops wearing his yarmulke, and starts eating shellfish: "He'd accept no burdens, not Jewishness, not marriage." Faced with the impending breakup, Deena must decide whether to retreat back into her past or forward into an unknowable future.
Abraham's clear-eyed, unsentimental novel is, more than anything else, about that choice: between the safety of childhood and the uncertainty of independence, between the religious life and the secular world. Flying over the ocean on her way to visit her parents, Deena dreams of a ship with Daniel and all her American friends on it, pulling away and leaving her floating alone in the waves: "She had to save her strength and learn to live in the water. She would become a fish." In Giving Up America, Pearl Abraham draws a subtle and compassionate portrait of marriage, divorce, and a woman at sea. --Mary Park