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When We Were Bad
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When We Were Bad

3.18 of 5 stars 3.18  ·  rating details  ·  520 ratings  ·  86 reviews
"'The Rubin family, everybody agrees, seems doomed to happiness'"

Claudia Rubin is in her heyday. Wife, mother, rabbi and sometime moral voice of the nation, everyone wants to be with her at her older son's glorious February wedding. Until Leo becomes a bolter and the heyday of the Rubin family begins to unravel . . .

'As intelligent as it is funny. A beautifully observed li
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published by Picador USA (first published 2007)
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Not Quite White by Simon ThirskThe Lucky Ones by Rachel CuskThe Sorrow's Garden by Anthony CarinhasHarbor by Lorraine AdamsA Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li
Tell the Publisher!
54th out of 101 books — 4 voters
The Road Home by Rose TremainLottery by Patricia WoodLullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O'NeillWhen We Were Bad by Charlotte MendelsonFault Lines by Nancy Huston
Orange Prize For Fiction Longlist 2008
4th out of 20 books — 1 voter

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Community Reviews

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Oh my. Charlotte Mendelson, you sly one, you. Who knew that the erstwhile Booker nominee had written a novel that would totally consume me in the reckless manner that it did? The fact that I could barely stand to set it down for a minute only added to the overall satisfaction of a tightly written narrative, filled with witty observations and characters that you come to care about even though they have few redeeming characteristics.

Claudia Rubin is at the height of her powers: wife, mother, rabb
Kirsty Darbyshire

I really enjoyed this. A rambling kind of family saga in some ways, but the sort that cover a lot of family in a short space of time rather than sort that transcend generations. The central characters are the members of a London Jewish family - Claudia, successful mother, and Norman, unsucessful father, and their four grown up children (for various values of "grown up").

I found the characters all pretty believable, often they are "larger than life" in the way that real people really are. What I

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Sue Smith
Somehow I think if I was of Jewish descent I would have gotten this book better .....I just felt like i was out of the loop on some of the antics of what was going on - or they would have made more sense as to the intensity they were given.

I did get the family dynamics though - that pretty much translates across the board - in all races and religions. Let's put 'FUN' back in dysFUNctional!!!! Although they did seem alittle more screwed up than most..... or maybe just in relation to my particula
The story of Claudia, a famous English rabbi and powerful matriarch, the husband living in her shadow, and their four children. Think The Corrections meets Philip Roth. Kind of.

Quite frankly, I wasn't expecting to like this book too much -- the only reason I picked it up was that it was sitting on my office bookshelf and I had forgotten to bring the other book I was reading. As I'm terrified of being caught on public transportation with nothing to read, I grabbed this, mostly because it looked
Veronica Zundel
On paper (which it is) this novel should have been the ideal read for me: the story of the collapsing family of a famous woman rabbi living in Hampstead. Unfortunately, and with apologies to the kind lady who gave me my copy, it was one of those books I couldn't pick up again when I'd put them down. The characters are mostly sketchy, the plot is non-existent (not that this would normally bother me but without decent characters you at least want a good plot) and it took me until two thirds of the ...more
I’ve got to say that I found the first part of this fiction really slow and plodding but after a certain point, although the action did not necessarily pick up, I felt really on-side with the characters so I began to enjoy it a whole lot more.

The book depicts a typical kitchen-sink family drama that evolves over time exposing the characters over the run of the novel with no particular dramatic surge. At first I found these characters pretty humdrum in the milieu of their daily lives but, after a
Jan 18, 2008 Patricia rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Jewish Rabbis, Women interest, fiction
Recommended to Patricia by: People interested in family relationships; sibling bonds
OK. I found out about this book on It was of interest to me because the author, Charlotte Mendelsohn is a publishing editor at a London-based publishing house.

I enjoyed the book, it was entertaining. What I liked most was the subject of the importance of pursuing our own happiness by putting our needs first rather than leading lives we think our father/mother/siblings want or we think want us to have.
emi Bevacqua
Although I grew to like the book some by the end, it was tough for me to stick with. Usually I love stories set in London, and I like a wacky Jewish family as much as the next guy but somehow each member of this one was so entirely out-of-control it made me feel anxious. And I didn't like picturing their house, it made me feel grubby. So overall this story kind of made me queasy and sad.
What Charlotte Mendelson achieves with her great skill of writing, she loses through her storytelling. I struggled with When We Were Bad to begin with, because I just found it so confusing. With so many different characters being initially thrown at you, I had a real difficulty in remembering who was who. As soon as I was around 100 pages in, I had managed to achieve a firm grasp over who all the characters were, but introducing so many right from the beginning made it difficult for me to divulg ...more
OK, I can see if I have to struggle with a political science book for a degree credit, but this? 3 chapters in and I still have no idea who the players are or what's going on. Give me a break!
Jul 25, 2013 Martinxo rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Martinxo by: Maggie Black
Shelves: 2013, fiction
Hugely enjoyable account of the trials and tribulations of Jewish family based in Camden, north London. Well written, thoughtful, funny and sad. Good stuff.
When the book opens with “The Rubin family, everybody agrees, seems doomed to happiness,” we feel certain Fate is going to have other ideas. In fact, the powerful, envied family, headed by sexy, celebrity Rabbi Claudia, seems so smug that we rather want them to suffer. In reality, their happiness is largely a façade, and each member of the household is bent on his or her personal kind of self-sabotage. It was refreshing to spend time in a Jewish household and to hear a woman in her mid-fifties d ...more
When We Were Bad, by Charlotte Mendelson is a literary work of a family in crisis. It is set in England and is a novel that portrays the family unit through an ensemble of characters.

The central character and family matriarch is Claudia Rubin, an intelligent rabbi in an age when female rabbis were not the norm in English Jewish circles. Not only is she a rabbi, but she is also a well-known writer. She is manipulative, forceful, attractive, and knows how to put on superficial faces when necessary
Dec 05, 2008 Angela rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Angela by: Orange Prize Shortlist
"When We Were Bad" seems like a great novel born a little too prematurely. The story follows a seemingly tight-knit London Jewish family as the cracks in their happiness are uncovered one after another. The older children aren't all that happy in their relationships, the youngest has some sort of hinted problem, and the parents are keeping a host of secrets from the whole family. It's full of deceptions that range from the small but unforgivable (unable to find the proper ingredients, Frances us ...more
This novel, though filled with a great deal of dry humor, is actually more of a picture of melancholy and lost opportunity than anything else. A lot of the book deals with the Jewish faith and how it has affected the characters’ perceptions of duty and happiness, but I think by the end, the despair and feelings of responsibility captured are so universal that it could have been about nearly any religion, or even none at all, because the family dynamics supersede the religious elements. Watching ...more
Like the diner who wants to like brussels sprouts but just can’t quite do it, I wanted to give this book four stars, but its flaws held it at 3 (when are we getting those half stars, Otis?)

The strength of Charlotte Mendelson’s writing is evident. She started out giving me a family whose members I universally disliked. But as they each harbored and nurtured their secrets, they became much more interesting, if not always more endearing, and soon, everything was hurtling toward what promised to be
Y'know... I don't think I've ever had this much fun watching a family implode.

It's the tale of the Rubin family. The Rubin family's life circles around their mother's expectations. Claudia Rubin is a respected member of the community, a Rabbi, über-mother par excellence. She writes books, goes on TV and the radio and generally seems to be respected and looked to as a moral compass.

Her husband, Norman, is a writer himself, but clearly stands in his wife's shadow, their four grown-up children seem
Helen Corcoran
I actually ran across this book on (I go there to browse their books section, often handy and interesting), so I knew there would be some sort of lesbian subtext/content in it. Her writing reminds me of Zadie Smith, but I like it a lot more.

This is a very literary book (yes, I do read literary fiction :P). It also reminds me of Anne Enright's writing in that it's a very sardonic look at family life. None of the Rubin clan is perfect and they are not always likable or pleasant. Th
I started expecting it to be mediocre and thats how I felt it was when I had finished. The first half of the book is wry but slightly boring and the second half left me not really liking the characters but interested nonetheless. There was a wealth of Jewish knowledge, traditions and terminology that I somehow never learned at school which says a lot about schools in this country really. Why, at my church of england school did we study so much Christianity that we already knew about, and yet lea ...more
I struggled at first to get into this book. So many characters, all equally important as the story unfolds. All so flawed. All so Jewish. That isn’t a criticism. Just an observation that understanding the Rubin family (and all the characters are family members) means getting to grips a bit with what it means to be Jewish too.

I persisted. It was worth it.

The lives of every family member begin to unravel as son Leo’s life very publicly does, the day he leaves his wife-to-be some 4 minutes before t
A great read. Mendelson deftly creates a zany family replete with mild dysfunction - Rabbi and matriarch to all, Claudia, is at the helm, hung up on appearances and her own family values; the kids each have their own issues (one being they are all adults yet act like kids) and at times this book was just hysterical.
Deduction of stars - often Mendelson was very unclear - the dialog or the overall narrative left pieces out and we were somehow supposed to follow anyway - also certain threads didn't
Emma Wharram
Rabbi Claudia Rubin is looking forward to her next book being published as well as her oldest son's wedding. But when he chooses another path, he sets off a chain event which leads to Claudia's life rapidly unravelling.

Far from a perfect family which balances the artistic with the dutiful, she has to face the fact her children are deeply flawed and are all in need of her help, support, love and understanding. But can she focus on them and finally give her husband the support and recognition he n
Alison Kagen
Read this for my book group; it was chosen because it was one of several recommended by our independent women's bookstore. Fascinating, funny, slightly unbelievable but none the worse for that. A slightly irritating style (haven't read any of her other books so don't know if this is habitual) where each event seems to be announced by "here is "x" doing "y". But again, it doesn't overwhelm. Not all characters are as clearly drawn as some; but the most sympathetic, who are possibly also ironically ...more
Jul 10, 2014 Lesley marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
I registered a book at!
Colette Guerin
How I love a book about a dysfunctional family in hiding. Good but wraps up too neatly in the end and some of the family dramatics are a bit overblown.
I didn't finish this one. A few chapters in I got bogged down and realized I didn't like any of the characters and didn't care what happened to them. The mother was a controlling harpy who kept her adult children bound to her with love, fear and, if necessary, manipulation. The kids were all pathetic and wierd. I finally skipped to the last couple of chapters and read them but it doesn't matter. I think that in my version of the story the entire family, except for the young children, got into a ...more
A tale of a family whose members, despite themselves, are devoted to each other. Written with a mixture of love of Jewishness and self-loathing. With a mixture of awe for a powerful matriarch and at the same time, resentment of the need to be cared for by her. A motley crew of unevolved humans as characters, just a wee bit stereotyped beyond reality. If I wasn't so down on mere mortals who lie, cheat, withhold truth and betray, I might have felt some sympathy toward them. Yet, understanding, emp ...more
Suncan Stone
I found that the book was not convincing... it starts off with an idea that then continues, but without any real 'umph'... you know you read it and it fills the minutes, but does not give you anything to really think about... even though it is supposed to be this brilliant book about a family falling apart and various other bits and pieces that could make it good, but they just don't... It is a book that will be forgoten by me before the year will be over I think... On the positive side... it is ...more
Somewhat of a soap-ish novel, this is about a family that is struggling to keep everyone together. There are love stories, family angst, affairs, and other drama-filled tales to be told. While a characters such as Claudia, Leo, and Frances are interesting, you just don't seem to care much about the others. And during a lot of the novel, you get frustrated reading because the characters are so selfish.

An interesting book with potential, but it gets caught too much up in causing a "whoa" moment th
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Charlotte Mendelson (born 1972) is a British novelist and editor. Her maternal grandparents were, in her words, "Hungarian-speaking-Czech, Ruthenian for about 10 minutes, Carpathian mountain-y, impossible to describe", who left Prague in 1939.
When she was two, she moved with her parents and her baby sister to a house in a cobbled passage next to St John's College, Oxford, where her father taught p
More about Charlotte Mendelson...
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“But what she had always imagined were the two basic ingredients of happy adulthood, intellectual companionship and thrilling sex, are missing too.” 3 likes
“He glances again at the door. Would a taste of the outside world be so unwise?” 2 likes
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