Plante, David. “American Stranger”, Delphinium, 2018.
Coming of Age
I always look forward to a new book by David Plante who never disappoints language or plot wise and he is one of the few writers who can bring tears to my eyes by the beauty of his language. In “American Stranger” he gives us a coming of age story in which he manages to look at many aspects of American life. We meet Nancy Gold, the daughter of prosperous Jewish immigrants from Germany who left Berlin as soon as Nazism began to rise and they found a good life in New York on the Upper East Side.
Nancy is an only child and is very close to her parents. When we meets her she is working on a master’s degree in literature concentrating on Henry James at Boston University. During the course of the novel, she becomes involved with three men of different religions, Aaron, a Hasidic Jew who is converting to Catholicism, Yvon a French Canadian American who is Catholic, and Tim, an Egyptian Jewish man living London. What is interesting about this is that Nancy seems to be a passive person yet she manages to have three relationships. Yet even with these relationships, Nancy really seems to only connect with Henry James.
With the three men she is curious about each’s connection to his religion. In a sense, Nancy’s experiences in New York, Boston, and London are reminiscent of Henry James’s novels. Like much of James, pathos is the overriding image I get from Nancy’s story and it is this pathos that makes us indentify with Nancy. We want her to find the kind of love she is seeking and like the characters in Henry James’ works, Nancy deserves to be loved.
Even though her family is Jewish, Nancy’s parents were secular Jews and Nancy does not know much about their pasts. She knows they were World War II Jewish refugees who were able to escape Germany with precious family heirlooms and that these are constant reminders of a lost life and a world that Nancy knows very little about. Nancy longs for some kind of spiritual connection and this is what leads her to a Hassidic Jewish man who, unable to find meaning in his own religion, has taken vows to become a monk. Next, she becomes involved with a Catholic boy in Boston named Yvon who is trying to escape the clutches of Catholicism and his overbearing mother and he finds temporary refuge in Nancy and sees her as an escape from the insular enclave of Franco-Americans where he has spent most of his life. Their highly erotic, tempestuous relationship is fearful to both of them. Then, a tragedy in Yvon’s life eventually pulls them apart. This was devastating to Nancy and she marries a Jewish man from London, hoping to find herself with a man of her own religion. However, this new relationship was nothing compared to her relationship with Yvon and it ends very sadly and regrettably. Nancy goes back to Boston to find the man who she feels is the great love of her life.
This is the story of a Jewish graduate student who is always looking for what is not there. Nancy seems to be constantly adrift. She’s drawn to complicated men and finally after three miscarriages and then Tim’s confession of infidelity, she finally acts for herself. The novel is abstract and realistic at the same time and the read is quite cerebral and fulfilling.