by Fernanda Ebserstadt
Knopf, 464 pp, $26.00
reviewed by Daniel Kluger
The Furies, Fernanda Eberstadt’s fourth, and most ambitious, novel to date, examines the complexities of motherhood, femininity, and love, and does it beautifully. The plot seems standard enough initially: Gwendolyn Lewis is thirty, intelligent, and single in the mid-nineties, established in the Upper West Side as the director of the Lavrinsky Institute (set up to help the former Soviet Union democratize) and living without Campbell, her long-time, pedigreed, blond banker boyfriend. On a business trip to Russia, she meets Gideon Wolkowitz—a bearded, secular Jewish puppeteer with deep-seated loyalties to the underdog—and, despite monetary and political differences and the fact that he lives in a squat on the Lower East Side, the two fall madly in love. They’re the poster children for opposites attracting; both are from broken homes, and find in each other that long lost something they’ve each been separately yearning for. When Gwen gets pregnant, Gideon is thrilled, and marriage soon follows. The next logical step would seem lawfully wedded bliss but turns out, instead, to be a subsequent downward spiral.
You saw it coming, though, and Eberstadt probably knows this. Still, her prose more than makes up for the plot’s seeming predictability: it’s often breathtaking, always beautiful, though the dialogue, at times, is too cloyingly witty, reading like an overly ambitious “Sex and the City” episode (“Well, blow me, it’s a homegirl. I should have guessed from your Oz shoes.”). What’s amazing, though, is Eberstadt’s uncanny ability to portray the ordinary as sacred. In Central Park, children clinging to “Our Alice Who Art in Wonderland,” are the saved and the damned; Gwen’s first impression of Gideon is of a shaggy “John the Baptist on a rusting Raleigh.” It’s her perception that’s so intriguing. Although Eberstadt’s characters are annoying to no end (Gideon so left-swinging, so grassroots, that it’s unreal, and Gwen, “superdeluxe Manhattan flotsam” that she is, acts whiny and elitist), they manage, somehow, to make you sympathize in spite of yourself. What renders the novel believable is precisely the characters’ fallibility, and the simultaneous significance of their actions in spite (or perhaps, because) of this. The result is a novel nothing short of brilliant.