Beautifully written, in many ways this book only paints the broad strokes, inviting you in to identify with the characters in different ways.
Asher Lev grows up in the strict Jewish family in Brooklyn in the 1940s/50s. Both sides of the family fled the Soviet Union, and in this new life in the US, find strength in their faith but also in the structure and in the sense of community of their particular group. There seems to also be a strong sense of guilt at not sharing in the suffering of those Jews still living (and being imprisoned and killed) under Stalin’s regime. This leads to Asher’s father being largely absent, as he travels first the US and then Europe, trying to help those fleeing and left behind.
Asher himself is a very gifted artist, which is evident from a very young age. In fact, it seems more than a gift, it seems to be the only way he can express himself. This leads to a lot of tension with his parents, and in particular his father. Ariyeh Lev does not know how to relate to his son. Art to him is at best a waste of time, at worst something that pulls you away from everything that is good and worthwhile.
Asher’s preoccupation with art, and the type of art he produces, is also not accepted or understood by his community and he becomes more and more isolated. The Rebbe seems to be the only one who understands what art means to Asher, and he tries to help him find ways to combine the two parts of his identity – that of an artist and that of a Ladover Jew.
There are a number of different themes running through the book. The one that struck me most, particularly in the third part, is the loneliness the characters (and all of us, maybe) feel. While the dichotomy here is maybe stronger than in most families, the book brilliantly shows that ultimately it is impossible to truly understand another human being. There are times when all three of the main characters genuinely attempt to reach out to the other. There are glimpses of understanding, of empathy towards the other. But sadly real communication and understanding never happen.
A beautifully written novel that will stay with me for a long time.