Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Review: WHerever You Go by Joan Leegant

Wherever You Go by Joan Leegant

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Published Date: July 25, 2011
ISBN: 978-393339895
Pages: 253
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary: Yona Stern has traveled from New York to Israel to make amends with her estranged sister, a stoic ideologue and mother of five who has dedicated herself to the radical West Bank settlement cause. Yona’s personal life resembles nothing of her sister’s, but it isn’t politics that drove the two apart.

Now a respected Jerusalem Talmud teacher, Mark Greenglass was once a drug dealer saved by an eleventh-hour turn to Orthodox Judaism. But for reasons he can’t understand, he’s lost his once fervent religious passion. Is he through with God? Is God through with him?

Enter Aaron Blinder, a year-abroad dropout with a history of failure whose famous father endlessly—some say obsessively—mines the Holocaust for his best-selling, melodramatic novels. Desperate for approval, Aaron finds a home on the violent fringe of Israeli society, with unforeseen and devastating consequences.

In a sweeping, beautifully written story, Joan Leegant, winner of the PEN New England Book Award and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, weaves together three lives caught in the grip of a volatile and demanding faith. Emotionally wrenching and unmistakably timely, Wherever You Go shines a light on one of the most disturbing elements in Israeli society: Jewish extremist groups and their threat to the modern, democratic state. This is a stunningly prescient novel.

My Thoughts: I was raised in a very religious strict Roman Catholic home. Every school I attended was Catholic, even my law school was part of a Catholic university. I knew very little about the Jewish faith until I took an introductory seminar while at my Jesuit College (my grandmother had a few choice words for the Jesuits about that!)! I discovered the Jewish religion is a beautiful religion steeped in tradition with a fascinating and long history. I still don't know a lot about Judaism although I learned a little bit more from my husband who was raised Jewish. I was drawn to Wherever You Go partly because the Jewish religion and life are part of the story and I hoped to learn more about it and Jewish extremism, of which I knew nothing.

The Jewish religion and way of life is a central part of the story in Wherever You Go especially the sections about Aaron Blinder and Mark Greenglass, providing captivating reading. But what I found fascinating, as well as disturbing, were passages about Jewish radicalism and the settlement movement, which often includes violent actions. I knew very little about this movement before reading Wherever You Go but I learned that, like so much else in life, the followers of this movement find their way to it for a myriad of reasons. The passion, commitment and even occasional, blind adherence, to Jewish radicalism is sometimes a response to other painful life-time afflictions as depicted by the characters in Wherever You Go.

Wherever You Go was, for me, as much about Jewish political and religious extremism as it was about three Jewish Americans who are all lost and searching for forgiveness or reconciliation or attention or identity or passion and more. Yona, Mark and Aaron have been experiencing painful inner conflicts for some time and their attempts at coping have caused their lives to grind to a halt. Yona and Aaron travel to Israel to find what they're looking for while Mark Greenglass leaves Israel for New York City only to return later. Not all of these characters are likable or likable all of the time but they are extremely flawed and, if not themselves dysfunctional, they come from dysfunction, making them very real human beings. Their journeys and the people, places and ideas they encounter is a riveting reading experience.

Ms. Leegant's main characters are people whose agony, struggles and the answers they seek many of us can relate to. At various times throughout the book, I was able to identify with the struggle and pain of each character. I was surprised by the sympathy I felt for Aaron towards the end of the book, an arrogant and obnoxious young guy much of the time, but then I saw the extent of the anguish, distress and burden he was living with and had been shielding from others. I wanted to cry for him and wished I could comfort him. These characters impacted me in powerful, unexpected ways. By the end of the book I was rooting for all of them to find the answers and live their lives. Ms. Leegant hasn't written a fairytale. This is a real story and in real life, things very often don't work out as we hope they will.

Wherever You Go is a beautifully written book. Ms. Leegant's writing style is compelling and graceful giving a melodious flow to the passages that draws you in. Israel comes alive in Ms. Leegant's hands and, though I've never been there, I now feel as if I have. Similarly everything from apartment rooms to statues to a living room ceiling are described in exquisite detail making it possible to picture them in your mind. The beauty of the writing sharply contrast with the subject matter mitigating the disturbing impact of some of the scenes.

This book has a lot going on with the lives of three characters and the struggles they're coping with and Judaism and the radical settlement movement. Although I think this is a captivating book, I wish it was a little bit longer. I felt that just as I was really getting a solid understanding of political and Jewish extremism the book ended. I also would have liked to read a little bit more of the characters lives and their experience with Jewish religion and life. Despite that, Ms. Leegant has written a wonderful book that I think is worthwhile reading for everyone.

Joan Leegant’s website

Thank you to Joan Leegant and W. W. Norton & Co. for a copy of Wherever You Go to read and review.


  1. I loved this book too. I had a friend at university who was Orthodox Jewish (and I mean very Orthodox) who is now a settler in Israel. I liked that this book presented lots of different viewpoints and perspectives.

    My review:

  2. This one sounds lovely. What a great review! Very comprehensive.

  3. This sounds like a fascinating book. It's a sign of a well written book when you want more, if you ask me.

  4. Lovely review, Amy! I'll be reading Wherever You Go very soon and am glad to hear you liked it so much. The subject is one I know next to nothing about but that interests me, so I'm looking forward to exploring it. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Amy, I loved this review, and it has made me even more excited about reading the book, if that is possible! I also find Judaism to be fascinating and the fact that the book focuses on some of the more radical streams of the religion is only another plus for me. I am so glad to hear that you liked this one. It bodes well for me!

  6. This sounds so fabulous! I've heard about this one and really love the whole plot of it. I've read a few reviews and been more intrigued and so I hope to check this out. I'm glad you liked it!

  7. I love books that teach me something when I read them while they also entertain me. This book sounds like it does both very well. What a wonderful review.

  8. I keep reading such praises for this one. You all are trying to strongarm me into reading it :)

  9. That is a high compliment … wishing that a book was longer so you could stay with it. This sounds like an interesting book that would teach me about something I know very little about.

  10. ooh, anything with the WW Norton name on the spine gets my approval, your review cements it!

  11. I haven't read your review yet because I'm just about to start this one, but I hope you'll put in your two cents' when I'm done and hosting the final discussion for the read-along that Carrie and I are doing. (Wow, that's a bit of a convoluted sentence!)

  12. Amy, thanks so much for this thoughtful and elegantly written review of my book. As you probably know, it's music to an author's ears to hear that a reader has been moved by the story and the characters. That's certainly at the top of my list of what I was striving for in writing Wherever You Go. Many thanks for taking the time to read it so closely and share your insightful and heartfelt response.