“The Matzo Ball Heiress” is a flamboyant and deeply flawed novel that sheds light on the Jewish American Generation X.
Author Laurie Gwen Shapiro belongs to a generation that has in many cases been deprived of an intact family and stable life, and her book will be tough going for older readers.
Those of us born during the years of World War II and the decade and a half afterward are from a different era. We grew up at a time when the Jewish American family was unbroken. Our grandparents arrived in the United States after fleeing oppression and poverty in Eastern Europe. They worked and sacrificed for their children — our parents — who grew up during the Depression in working-class Jewish neighborhoods. Our fathers fought in World War II and went to college on the GI Bill.
And we, second-generation American Jews, were newly middle class. As children we became cognizant of the world as it had been — when in Europe the Nazis murdered 6 million of our people, including 2 million Jewish children, and when the state of Israel was born.
Many of the Jewish writers we came to admire spoke to us of our parents’ and grandparents’ world, and Anne Frank’s diary was a revelation.
But in “The Matzo Ball Heiress,” the narrator sees going to the Anne Frank House as a “strong jolt of Heritage guilt.” It is obvious that the Holocaust is a burden, something dug up from the ancient past.
“The Matzo Ball Heiress” is about a woman who has broken with her heritage. Narrator Heather Greenblotz, a matzah-factory heiress and award-winning documentary filmmaker, has, as the novel opens, no emotional links to Judaism or her family. Her father has left her mother to live with a man. Her mother is emotionally unavailable. And her cousin’s girlfriend, in what is supposed to be a funny twist, is named Amy Hitler.
Yet there is something to Heather. Her sexual openness does not mask an extreme vulnerability and desire for love. And when the jokes slow down, the author reveals that even those most detached from Jewish family and community are desirous of a connection.
It takes the events of 9/11 for Heather’s father and mother to re-establish contact with their daughter. When they do, and when Heather is comforted by her mother, the novel deepens.
“The end of the world loomed outside, but it felt good to have her taking care of me. It felt good to have that short but obviously heartfelt e-mail from Dad saying how concerned he was. For a moment, with New York in physical and emotional chaos, I got a taste of what it would be like to have grown up with doting parents.”
The plot revolves around Heather’s attempt to bolster company sales by having her family seder shown on the Food Channel. Ironically, the seder leads to at least a partial reconciliation of Heather with her mother and father and with Judaism.
Shapiro has real talent as a narrative and descriptive writer. But her novel is riddled with cliches, with humor that is more obscene than witty, and with a fairy-tale but implausible love-story happy ending between Heather and an Orthodox Jewish filmmaker who is also a wealthy heir to a fortune.
Shapiro has the ability to leave caricature and create real character. Her challenge is to find meaning in the Jewish past. As Philip Roth has shown, embracing the Jewish past does not have to be uncritical.
“Seinfeld” and “Sex and the City” seem obvious influences on the writer. Perhaps for her next book, she might add Anzia Yezierska or Elaine May.
If Shapiro is to grow, this is not the kind of book she can afford to write more than once.
“The Matzo Ball Heiress” by Laurie Gwen Shapiro (311 pages, Red Dress Ink, $12.95).