Book review: Self-indulgence, doom and hope

Family dysfunction in an atmosphere of gluttony

By AARON LEIBEL
August 21, 2019 19:18
3 minute read.
Book review: Self-indulgence, doom and hope

ON THE ship: ‘Eat, argue, bingo. Eat, argue, show.’. (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

If dysfunction were a positive attribute, the Feldman family would be Pulitzer Prize-worthy.

These American Jews, chronicled in Elyssa Friedland’s biting satirical novel the Floating Feldmans, are self-centered approaching narcissistic; materialistic to the virtual exclusion of spirituality; and dishonest. They dislike – and misunderstand – their relatives to the point that they try to avoid contact with them. They rarely telephone or visit each other and when they do contact each other, arguments or worse usually ensue.

So, you can imagine what’s in store when the patriarch and matriarch, their grown children and grandchildren are cloistered together on a crowded cruise ship to celebrate grandma Annette’s 70th birthday.

Family secrets – and everyone’s repressed anger and resentments – leak out during the cruise.

Elise, 44, the daughter, is a shopaholic whose over-the-top purchases, unbeknownst to her husband, have bankrupted their family. She wants to solve her indebtedness by cheating her parents, convincing them to invest in a bogus business scheme.
Meanwhile, Mitchell, 47, Elise’s husband, already has resigned as managing editor of the Sacramento Bee newspaper to launch an online literary journal – again without telling anyone.

Their daughter Rachel, 19, is having an affair with a married man. Last year, when Rachel told her parents she was building houses in Guatemala, she actually had been arrested in the US and was helped out by her Uncle Freddy and their son, Darius, 17, is so messed up that he can’t even start writing an essay that’s part of the entrance requirements for college.

Freddy, 48, the son, is thought by everyone to be a bum, a failure, and is not respected by other family members. But, in reality he is a millionaire in the newly legalized marijuana industry.

Freddy’s young girlfriend Natasha Kutzenov, 28, only wants to meet Freddy’s family. But the family sees the age difference between Natasha and Freddy and don’t like or respect her.

Their children try to avoid Annette, and Grandpa David – again known only to his wife – has leukemia.

As family members argue – leading one time to a physical altercation between Mitchell and his father-in-law – in the background is the cruise ship, the Ocean Queen, a “floating city. It had 18 floors (decks, to be precise), 12 restaurants, an ice-skating rink, a thousand-seat live theater, and an IMAX cinema.”

And onboard, their fellow passengers eat and then eat some more, doing whatever was necessary to maximize their gluttonous ways.
Julian, cruise director on the ship, discusses the essence of the cruise ship.
“Boat life was a matter of simple rinse and repeat. Eat, argue, bingo. Eat, argue, show. Eat. argue, excursion. And then eat some more.”

FAMILY DYSFUNCTION in an atmosphere of gluttony and self-indulgence seems to portend doom. Surprisingly, it all ends nicely. Problems are either solved or are on the way to solution.

Author Elyssa Friedland seems to be saying that although there are resentments, irritants, disputes in all families, there also is love, and love trumps everything else.

Despite Elise’s plan to defraud her parents, they still are ready to help her.

Sure, Annette tells Julian, the cruise director, her friends make her laugh more than do her children, and the doctors and nurses she used to work with (David was a physician and she ran his office) respected her more than do her grandchildren.
Nonetheless, family comes first.

“It’s kind of like the sky,” Annette says. “You know how there are so many stars on a clear night that you can’t begin to count them? The people who make up our worlds – the friends, the coworkers, the ones who we pass on the street who smile at us – they are those stars. But there are nights when it’s so cloudy that you can’t see any stars. Our family members are the stars we can call on to shine when we need a little light. And they have no choice but to turn on, even if they are far away, even if the would rather be doing other things.”
Amen.

The writer is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.



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