Shadowy intrigue

Lauren Sanders’s third novel takes a confusing journey across Israel in a tale of spies and missing family members.

Spies (photo credit: JIM ATHERTON/TNS)
(photo credit: JIM ATHERTON/TNS)
The title of this novel, The Book of Love and Hate, led me to expect a sweeping and epic story along the lines of, say, Amos Oz’s masterful A Tale of Love and Darkness.
So perhaps my disappointment stems from unfair expectations, but the fact remains that I found The Book of Love and Hate disappointing.
The protagonist, Jennifer Baron, is not a likable or sympathetic personality. An injured former Olympic speed-skater from New York City with a shadowy mega-wealthy father, a cold runaway mother and a brother who committed suicide several years after getting kicked out of the Israeli army for illicit drug use, she drowns her physical and existential pain in booze, drugs and lesbian sexual encounters with her father’s former lover.
Lauren Sanders’s writing style does keep the reader turning the pages, if only in a desperate search for clarity about the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Jennifer’s father and why she is in such danger as she travels around Israel looking for him – and clarity about the true intentions of the characters helping or hurting Jennifer’s quest along the way. By the end, much remains murky, likely by design.
The book’s pages are minefields planted with f-bombs in the guise of exclamations, adjectives and verbs.
Sprinkled onto this pockmarked landscape are disturbing scenes of torture, rape, betrayal and – sadly but not surprisingly, coming from a hip Jewish New York writer – condemnatory statements concerning Israel in general and its actions in the 2009 Gaza war.
Lurking beneath that trashy exterior is a complicated spy (or spy-gone-bad) story that never gets fleshed out fully because the action is presented exclusively through Jennifer’s eyes. The reader knows only what Jennifer knows, and that’s not much. If Sanders had shifted or broadened her perspective, the plot might have had more depth. I can only guess that the first-person voice is meant to give the reader greater insight into Jennifer’s character, like it or not.
In an author statement about this, her third novel, Sanders writes: “I wanted to create a character who’s lived most of her life in the grayness of indifference and who’s finally called upon to account for it. Part of her accounting has to do with the various crimes the people around her have committed, part has to do with whom she’s chosen to love and trust, part has to do with her own identity as a woman, a lesbian, an American Jew.”
Indifference, as one of the book’s characters reminds us, was once identified by Elie Wiesel as the opposite of love. Certainly, Sanders’s story is rife with the forces of love and hate rather than indifference, but what effect these forces have on Jennifer Baron is less certain.
Every now and then there’s a notable nugget, like this: “The best ideas usually surface in liminal territory, when you’re not in one world or another, transitional times like running on the beach or, for some reason, the shower, where the whole world congeals into a steamy womb.”
Or this: “I was never trained to fix things. Only to break them. Someone else always cleaned up, and if you’re paying attention and you pay people to do things for you, normal stuff like changing tires or cleaning a toilet, there’s always a hidden lever of shame, which I’ve found is best managed by shoving it underneath the carpet. Money cools your cheeks in a permanent way, but you can spend your days longing for an earthly utility, anything that connects you to how things work.”
In addition to introspection, there’s plenty of action throughout the book, as Jennifer is constantly on the move to find her father, elude people trying to catch her and form relationships with the few people she trusts.
When she’s not moving, Jennifer is having dreams and flashbacks to pivotal scenes of her earlier life. There is much for her to sort through, examine, let go and mourn. Somehow, her random encounters with her father – or is it her father’s ghost? – on the beaches and in the outdoor cafés of Israel help her tie up a few of her loose ends.
The Book of Love and Hate
may be ultimately forgettable, but I have to say this much: it is never boring.