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If I Told You Once. Judy Budnitz

3.8  ·  Rating Details ·  688 Ratings  ·  58 Reviews
Judy Budnitz's debut novel, If I Told You Once, introduces us to Ilana, a peasant girl living sometime at the beginning of the 20th century, in an unnamed European town so gray that "the color of an egg yolk is something of a miracle." This is a place as timeless and vivid as fairy tales, with figures from Russian folklore cast against real-world horrors like rape, canniba ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published January 1st 2008 by HarperCollins Publishers (first published November 1999)
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Community Reviews

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Emma Williams
Jun 10, 2012 Emma Williams rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My favourite book, and no-one I know has heard of it. :-(
Jan 29, 2012 Amy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: second-shelf
I found this book enchanting. It is an old world folk tale in progress to the present, not just being told as the past and I don't think I have ever read something similar. It weaves from the realistic to the bizarre seamlessly which is an aspect I particularly liked. The characters of each of the women run the gamut from great strength to insanity and I enjoyed puzzling out which was strongest and could not, which is perfect because it keeps the story going and alive as folk tale should. I cont ...more
Apr 13, 2011 Bonnie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Oddly intriguing from the first page. I find this book fascinating and impossible to describe. I think every reader will take a different meaning from the stories. It's a fairytale for grownups and a great read.
Aug 03, 2009 Natasha rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: stand-outs
I was just... wow. I was glued to this book.
It started off by Ilana telling the story of her birth, and from then on the story of her childhood. I was HOOKED. The narroration was just so captivating, and the world they live in was just so mesmorizing.
I couldn't believe it. I loved Ilana for her strength, her way of not abiding the rules. By her WAY.
And then she met Shmuel. (Way to GO, Ilana! I was rooting the whole time). Soon, Sashie was born, and grew, and then Mara was born, and alas, years
Kelly Goffin
Oct 18, 2015 Kelly Goffin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"I can believe anything. For a little while."
Jul 09, 2012 Yvette rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved the dark fairy tale of this book, a wonderful read and worth re-reading
Zoe Brooks
This novel, starts in the shtetls of eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century but it could have been any century as so little has changed. Ilana's childhood world is one of medieval superstition, where fairytales live, as do wood spirits, witches and other demons. It ends in what I took to be modern-day New York.

The opening chapters of Ilana's childhood, youth and escape to America are simply wonderful. The magic and surreal works perfectly here, as you might expect given the beliefs
Jan 31, 2011 Leah rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a story about stories. Stories that people tell, stories that people believe and stories about things that have happened. The plot follows four generations of women, the oldest of whom was born in the Northern European forests of snow, and who emigrates to America where her family grows. Told by the four women themselves, this story has an added injection of folklore and superstition which continues through the more western life in the States and provides another dimension to the novel. ...more
Jun 02, 2012 Rosie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book that I chose for myself. It was not a book club pick, or recommended to me from anyone else or from my usual sources. And, since I have chosen a real streak of stinkers for myself lately, I did not have high expectations for this one. I was really surprised with how much I enjoyed it. It's sort of a weird story about three generations of women from the same family. It has some magic thrown in, but it's still easy to visualize everything and kept me captured. I enjoyed that it was ...more
Budnitz writes in magical realism intended often as social commentary. The first third of this novel is extraordinary. At one point, the main character, who was born in a East European village goes to a port city in Western Europe, hoping to find her lover. Instead she finds the city deserted. She runs to the docks, and the ocean is dry with the tall sailing ships resting lopsidedly on the ocean floor. She flees in terror, later finding her lover in a different city. She tells him of this place ...more
Meri Meri
Feb 13, 2012 Meri Meri rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Actually a 3.5 out of 5. An Angela Carter-like novel about family ties with quasi-magical realist elements popping up in the life of early twentieth century Jewish immigrants in the States. Very poetic and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, Budnitz has a voice that is refreshingly original in the avalanche of "third generation" American Jewish writing. I particularly liked the roundabout manner in which she approached the Holocaust without an overtly postmodern laboured twist a la Jonathan Safra ...more
The story of four generations of women, starting with a the first daughter's emigration from a tiny eastern European village to America and ending with her great grand daughter's first attempts to do the very same thing that started the story - break away from her mother. The historical part has a great sense of time and place, while the contemporary part relies on characterization to draw the reader in. This makes for an uneven, but still quite readable story.
Sep 10, 2009 Autumn rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: almost anyone!
Recommended to Autumn by: Sheila Reiser
What an amazing, fantastic book. I love the magical atmosphere of it, I was intrigued by the complex characters and their thoughts on each other. This is a fairytale, a mother-daughter story and a multi-generational, immigrant tale. The author is so beautifully descriptive yet leaves the reader wondering and examining.
Monica Moreno
Jan 17, 2011 Monica Moreno rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a terrific story! You can't stop reading it.
Aug 21, 2009 Lxfolsom rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful example of magic realism
Jul 14, 2012 Philippa rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
East European fairy tale style merging into modern fiction.
Oct 23, 2016 Kristi rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
This is a multi-generational story of a family, told from the women's side, with a heavy sprinkling of magical realism throughout. While the prose was lovely, and the stories compelling, I found the characters to range from disturbing to downright abhorrent. How do these people function in normal society? It's a dark book with dark characters, not a light weekend read.
Oct 19, 2016 Sheila rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Wonderful writing!
Reads like a creepy fairytale from its beginnings in (presumably) eastern Europe to the almost modern American city, told in the voices of Ilana and her female descendants.
Vittoria Dalton
Jan 06, 2017 Vittoria Dalton rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: heartfully-book
L’altro colore dell’inverno è una favola. Una favola piena di sentimento, amore, speranza che s’intrecciano indissolubilmente a realtà dure, violente. Descritte con semplicità, naturalezza, senza fronzoli a mitigarne la crudezza. Un racconto reale e insieme visionario, dove immaginazione e realtà non si scontrano ma s’intrecciano fino a diventare una sola dimensione indistinguibile, dai toni cupi e vividi. In un baluginare di sfumature che si susseguono in diversi tempi e luoghi, attraverso la n ...more
Stephen Redwood
Allusions to the harsher spectrum of fairy tales, with rather fantastical events and characters operating in a gritty and magical environment, begin this tale. But the fairy tale spirit, while never quite leaving the story, increasingly gives way to a less fantastical tale of immigration hardship and a bizarre set of family dynamics passing through 5 generations. The central characters (Ilana, Sashie, Mara, and Nomie), are 4 generations of a family, each displaying rather bizarre and crazy behav ...more
Isabel (kittiwake)
Sometimes the bandits attacked the soldiers and stole their military boots and jackets for themselves. Sometimes the soldiers wore shaggy fur cloaks to keep out the cold. Sometimes the wolves walked on their hind legs like men.

Ilana was born in a village in the forests of Eastern Europe, a place where creatures from myths and fairy tales were part of everyday life. But at the age of sixteen, tired of looking after her younger brothers and sisters, she left home for good. On her travels, she fall
Aug 26, 2007 Tory rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
“I thought how strange it is, the way the shape of your life grows up around you unbidden, like weeds. In the beginning you do not intend to live any particular way, you think you are living freely, are hardly aware of the subtle choices you are making. But as the years pass your life slowly closes in around you, hardening like a shell, crowding you from all sides, hemming you in with furniture and debts and habits, forcing you into narrower and narrower channels until suddenly you find you have ...more
Jul 31, 2013 Kathryn rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I knew it was my sort of story from the opening paragraphs, with its imagery and descriptions, such as liquor being 'a raging headache stoppered in a jar' and 'the colour of an egg yolk...something of a miracle'. I absolutely adored the imagery - Budnitz veers away from all the usual clichés and effortlessly brings in clever images that are a little more unusual and unique. I was also impressed with the way the setting and storyline evolve. It opens in a bleak and outdated place, with people who ...more
Jun 23, 2013 Kate rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was my second read of this novel - and at times it felt like visiting an old friend. Although I could not have told you anything about it before hand (it had been many years since I first read it) the stories are so unique you cannot help but recognise them.

Tall tales and true 'from the old country' - it is an amazing collection of stories interwoven with magic and insight. Set across two continents and 4 generations - this novel manages to keep on moving through good times & bad, accum
Sonja T
I read this book when I was about 13, my mum had recieved it as a free gift with something (not sure???)and it was really the first adult novel that I had ever read. I can't remember the names of many of the characters but the story still sticks with me to this day. I liked how the grandmother (first generation) started the story and then it was continued on through her future generations of women. It was so interesting to see the differences in each of their lives but that they also had vast si ...more
Nov 17, 2011 Zoe rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: jewish-culture

There were some things in this book that echoed my own impressions of Jewish culture and the Jewish inter-generational experience, but I found it frustrating that the "old country," the "old language," and the ethnicity of the characters and story remained obscure. I'm sure the author did it on purpose - but why? The book uses a first-person narrative, switching back and forth between the three main characters of grandmother, daughter and granddaughter, with almost no dialogue - another consciou
Jan 06, 2013 Amanda rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Brilliant, magical, addictive narrative threads weaving the lives together of four generations of women from Eastern Europe. A rare gem of a book, totally understated and deserving of so much more attention than this book seems to have earned. Budnitz's prose is startling, a series of wild hoops linking reality with far out fantasy snow-drifts, making life seem totally normal and insanely extraordinary and brutal even, all at once. I was steeped and sustained by this book for its duration, and d ...more
Dec 31, 2013 Marnie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
If half of a book can count as a favorite book, then the first half of "If I Told You Once" qualifies. Magical realism with an eastern European flavor. Loved the main character in the first half and all the supporting characters. Thought the book lost steam when it moved to NY where, somehow, the magical part seemed more out of place and the additional narrators (daughter/granddaughter of the original narrator) were much less appealing. The last bit of the book works more like the first half, I ...more
Vanessa LaFerriere
This beautifully written book follows the life of a young girl in "The Old Country" (an unnamed area of Eastern Europe) who eventually emigrates to America and has children, grandchildren and a great grandchild of her own. When told from the main character's perspective, it reads like a fairy tale for grownups, with subplots evocative of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel and Rapunzel. I couldn't put it down!
Marya DeVoto
Jan 15, 2012 Marya DeVoto rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was beautiful in places--I like the magical realism mixed with gritty and sometimes funny story that slowly reveals itself to be an immigrant tale. It was a bit unremittingly grim though. Didn't anyone ever have a happy marriage with surviving kids? Don't girls ever fail to get knocked up? Can't mothers and daughters ever communicate? Still, worth reading and Ilana, the matriarch, is a gripping, tough, magical character.
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Judy Budnitz was born in 1973 and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. She graduated from Harvard in 1995, and recieved an MFA in creative writing from New York University in 1998.
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“I looked at his eyes. I was thinking: they are bluer than the sea.
But then the sea is not blue at all, is it?”
“I stayed indoors most of the time, which kept my skin very white. And my hair was as black as Ilana's. I wore black clothes all the time, just as she did.
When I was in elementary school the other girls had called me a witch, scratched me with their nails, giggled behind their notebooks. But now I was in high school and suddenly everyone wore black and had pale skin and cultivated a disheveled haunted look.
Now I blended in.”
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