STRANGERS AND COUSINS
By Leah Hager Cohen
Walter and Bennie Blumenthal, presiding over the vibrant, anarchic family gathering brought to life in Leah Hager Cohen’s new novel, are preparing for a bittersweet landmark, their eldest child’s wedding. “Life is change,” Walter reflects, “and you can’t avoid or outrun change no matter where you go.” The irony in Cohen’s setup is that for this warm, accepting couple, the changes that are unsettling relate not to their free-spirited daughter Clementine’s impending marriage to her college girlfriend, nor even the frail health of Bennie’s beloved old (great-) Aunt Gladys, but rather their community’s upheaval about the recent influx of a group of Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews, and the Blumenthals’ own related, not-yet-announced decision to sell their house. The couple’s other secret is the transformation taking place within Bennie, who is pregnant with their fifth child.
Cheerful and lively, “Strangers and Cousins” is dense with themes, yet has a satisfying simplicity of setting. The story unfolds over five days at the Blumenthals’ rambling clapboard home in a rural town north of New York as friends and family show up to stay, to help and to complicate matters. Among the arrivals are Clem and her irreverent college pals, ahead of her bride-to-be; then come Bennie’s sister and brother, Carrie and Lloyd, without partners but with their respective young children.
Bennie, Carrie and Lloyd grew up in this historic house, once the town’s post office and general store — as did Aunt Glad, for whom the past has become ever more inseparable from the present. As a child in Rundle Junction, she survived the town’s defining tragedy, when an explosion caused a fire in the grandstand at a public celebration, killing 18 children. Aunt Glad has visible scars as well as invisible ones, and the disaster resurfaces at points when Cohen aims, sometimes heavy-handedly, to highlight issues of loss and family secrets, as well as the pleasures and dangers of pageantry.
For Clem, steeped in the slang and high theory of college — wittily captured, though Cohen keeps the satire gentle — this wedding, right after her graduation, is conceived as an act of community theater, a “ritual marrying reality with theatricality.” As, in short, a pageant. Clem, a kind of anarchist bridezilla, welcomes improvisation, inviting various nonbinary friends to come camp out with their dog, their baby, some pot. All of which expresses perfectly the gist of Clem’s senior thesis: “To surrender the ego’s designs to the eternal truth of uncertainty.” Clem’s intended, Diggs, who is African-American, is more ordered in her thinking; to her, Clem’s embrace of chaos is a sign of racial privilege. Meanwhile Bennie, from whose perspective we most often view these events, feels an understandable if mostly suppressed impatience with her daughter’s attitude: “As if it’s all a lark, gauzy, make-believe. As if it isn’t a matter of lives at stake.”
Nonetheless, Bennie and Walter (a steadfast, bread-baking husband, whom Bennie lovingly calls Stalwart) remain welcoming to all comers, even as the neighborhood’s resistance to the foreign Haredim simmers in the background. Cohen is interested in who remains inside and who outside the pale, but the novel’s “others” — Diggs and her late-arriving parents; Lloyd’s daughter, Ellerby, whose mother is from Nicaragua; a new neighboring Haredi family — are essentially bystanders in the Blumenthals’ festivities, mostly because the family itself (the three other children are teenage Tom and sprightly young Mantha and Pim) is somewhat self-absorbed. Contributing to the drama as the big day approaches are stock theater elements, though they’re Cohen’s not Clem’s: a stranger at the door, a mysterious act of vandalism, someone falling ill and a destructive thunderstorm.
As in a Shakespearean comedy, disparate relationships will find a way to be resolved, and familial love, at least, will prevail. It’s wise Aunt Glad, in her own life’s twilight, whose words provide the novel’s ultimate plea for acceptance, of others and of ourselves: “We must always try to embrace reality.”
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