Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant

27th October 2011

*I received this book courtesy of the author and the publisher, W.W. Norton in exchange for an honest review.

Joan Leegant’s novel Wherever You Go is both exactly what you’d expect and nothing you’d expect from a novel set in Israel. Personally, I expected judgment and religious discourse. Instead, I found a very thoughtful novel, which I thought aptly expressed the ambiguity toward Israel many Americans feel.

Partially, Leegant is able to do this because of her characters: three Americans with arms and legs and whole bodies reaching, willingly or unwillingly, to that Holy Land, Jerusalem. Yona – to see her estranged sister, now a mother of five married to a radical and living in the West Bank. Mark – whose return to New York causes him to question his devotion and career, teaching the Talmud. Aaron – to find a place to fit, away from his famous father’s gaze and disapproval.

The three are connected only by one instant in the novel, toward the very end, and I very much appreciated the more natural flow. I dislike it when authors attempt to neatly pull together three characters without much cause, in an attempt to change them in some way. In Wherever You Go, however, the change has been occurring, and the reader witnesses the transformation through flashbacks and narration: Yona’s acceptance of herself and her sister; Mark’s realization that a devoted life doesn’t have to be a purely sacrificial life; Aaron’s attempt to overcome apathy.

Since it is such a character-driven novel, it did take me a bit to get into, but I should also tell you how much I fell in love with Mark Greenglass. I could honestly have followed him alone throughout the entire novel. I loved that Leegant juxtaposed his addiction to drugs with his addiction to the Talmud and how oblivious he is to it until he must face the one person capable of recalling him to his former self. He stays, awkwardly, in his parent’s luxurious Manhattan home while there on a teaching job, and his vain, proud mother slowly tries to make up for his father’s coldness. And the moment when he realizes he has been punishing himself because of his former life only reinforced the beauty of his character.

In Wherever You Go, Leegant is critical of extremism, whether through Yona’s multiple affairs with married men, Mark’s denial of human affection, or Aaron’s misguided political beliefs. For as much as this is a book about Judaism, it’s much more a book about fanaticism and the guises we use to cover up brutality and cruelty.

So now I’m curious. Have you read this? Have you read any other books that deftly explore Jerusalem and its political divisiveness?

  • Great review — I really enjoyed this one — was captivated — especially since it’s not culturally/religiously/ethically a story I can relate to, I was shocked at how much resonated. Leegant really translated well the passions/pain of her characters in a way I found very easy to appreciate.

    I’m trying to think if there are other novels that explore Jerusalem like this, and nothing immediately jumps to mind. I enjoyed Evan Fallenberg’s When We Danced on Water which is set in Israel and touches a little on public/private spheres of life, but isn’t exactly like this book. I’ll keep thinking!

    • It really did resonate quite well.

      I’m not quite sure I’ve read anything else set in Jerusalem, but honestly, I often blank when it comes to stuff I’ve read in the past.