Book Review: ‘Bertrand Court’

Delve right in to the trials and tribulations of one loosely connected Jewish family.

Bertrand Court book cover (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bertrand Court book cover
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Michelle Brafman, author of Washing the Dead, opens her newest work with a list of characters and their relationships to one another. These two pages turn out to be very helpful for the reader working their way through the 17 chapters that comprise Bertrand Court.
Set in a quiet, upscale, suburban Washington, DC, cul-de-sac, Bertrand Court is less a novel than a loosely connected bouquet of stories. Although most of the stories are dated between 2001 and 2007, there is family history here that stretches as far back as 1935.
Even though it’s hard to keep all the characters and their various couplings (and uncouplings) straight, Brafman’s writing is both skilled and sweet to the ear. Though not smarmy like a soap opera, Bertrand Court is something of a Jewish Peyton Place, in which the residents’ lives and personal and family struggles spill over into one another’s stories.
Each chapter is another voice, another life. Over the course of the book’s 255 pages, Brafman writes from the perspective of an array of individuals, including the three Solonsky siblings: Hannah, who experiences the heartbreaking loss of several pregnancies; Eric, whose non-Jewish wife Maggie steams kale for dinner and makes sugar-free carrot cake for a five year old’s birthday party; and Amy, the youngest, who spends her 20s running away from adult responsibility and then makes an unconventional marital choice.
Brafman’s ability to assume the voice of her characters is never more powerful than in the chapter “In Flight,” about Rosie Gold. Rosie is “a little slow, a little off.”
Though Rosie is vaguely middle-aged, her dialogue is childlike.
“My boss once told me that I’m the hardest working employee the Toy Chest ever hired, and that I understand more about stuffed animals and games than he does. I huff off to my bedroom and watch back-to-back episodes of The Facts of Life.
Robin bought me two whole seasons on DVD, and this is the one where Tudie steals a present for Mrs. Garrett because she can’t afford to buy one herself. Tudie is my favorite character.”
The plot line of Bertrand Court is essentially nonexistent. Although the novel is a quick, pleasant read, it does not lack for depth. It pulsates with the issues of modern, suburban Jewish life, including fertility, family betrayals, intermarriage, political careers that go up in flames, married sex and casual sex, searches for a deeper meaning in life through pole-dancing classes and an adult bat mitzva, offbeat reunions of former lovers and more.
If you’re looking for the lightly interwoven stories to come together into a cohesive whole, you’ll be disappointed. There are too many loose ends, such as what happens when Becca Coopersmith realizes that the very not-Jewish Molly Flanders stole her grandfather’s tallit in a pique of Jew envy. Or how Georgia Dumfries justifies what she did with Phil Scott’s cornily named yet beloved cat Mandu.
You won’t stay with Bertrand Court for its tight story line. You’ll stay because Brafman writes passages like this that precisely capture vaguely Jewish, suburban American life: “Eric felt insanely Jewish trolling through Montgomery Mall on Yom Kippur. He surveyed the array of shoppers, taking note of the varieties of blond: a highlighted soccer mom lugging a huge Crate and Barrel shopping bag, a dishwater twentysomething manning an electronics kiosk, a towhead toddler wearing the remnants of a chocolate ice cream cone on her chin.”
As hard as it is to keep all 29 main characters straight, it’s equally hard to keep the timeline clear, since the chapters shift between years, and sometimes decades.
One closes Bertrand Court hoping that, in the future, the talented Brafman will take one character (perhaps Becca Coopersmith, who is the most Jewish of them all) and flesh out her story in a novel that doesn’t make the reader work so hard to remember who’s who.
Once you let go of the expectation that the story line will hold together or that you’ll ever remember how Nikki Chamberlain is related to Georgia Dumfries or who Helene Stramm is, you can just relax and appreciate what Brafman conjures up with her insightful prose.