Patrick's Reviews > When We Were Bad

When We Were Bad by Charlotte Mendelson
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May 09, 2012

it was amazing
Read from May 09 to 14, 2012

** spoiler alert ** The book deals with one of my favorite subject matters the issue of duty versus individual desire. Since I consider my value system to be heavily influenced by both I love books which places one value against the other. I actually really love this book because of the lessons of how one has to be an individual first before one can be responsible for others and equally important is letting go of control of others peoples lives and concentrate only on things that one can control.

I think one of Mendelson's insight through her storytelling is how our individual internal state of mind influences how we interpret others actions. So one cannot be truly interdependent with others without first being independent. I think this book is one of the best propaganda for living on one's own, be it via working or through college education far from family because one needs to be independent of familial sphere of influence and be independent before one comes back and becomes responsible for community and family. For example, Em gets mad at Leo for bringing Helen to the Seder because she herself gave up on her social life to please her mother so why can't her brother. It turns out France's rebellion is really just the rebellion against the forceful enforcement of Claudia's familial rule. France confusion of what she wants occurs because she never left the Claudial's familial dominion. Despite what she wants, she continuously caves in to Claudia's wishes. This is the perfect illustration of what afflicts kids who have never left home thus they cannot separate what they want from familial wants.

I do not know whether American's understand this book because only in immigrant or ethnically close families or people in developing countries where multi-generational homes are more prominent so that family has such an inescapable gravitational pull that the individual wish is an afterthought.

In the book Claudia represents the successful matriarch of the family who is a Rabbi with a successful and growing Shul. She expects all her children to follow their duty to her and her family in order for successful appearance to be upheld by her Shul and her society at large. Apparently, Claudia's drive to keep "the perfect family life" stems from her need to have her family as the stable foundation of her life. While I certainly empathize with her need to have faith and family as her foundation, I think at a certain point one has to let your family members choose for themselves how to live their lives especially once they become adults. Her grip on her family and their behavior astounds me. Her need for control is about to be tested with the advent of the AAA that might kill her. Even with her life on the line, her need to control her family and her Shul via executing her duties in it is foolishly admirable. Claudia is keeping a stoic attitude toward her illness and seems to want to will her disease away. She does not tell her family about her illness in order to keep a semblance of order and control in her life. Claudia is really a control freak that she does not acknowledge Norman personal success because of his betrayal of "writing" behind her back.

I love the ending how Claudia realizes it is fear of losing control that led to her folly of not seeking immediate medical help. Once she lets go of her fear and trust her hands in God she experiences happiness and thus is able to express her love for the first time in her life. Once Claudia lets go of her fear of control, she experiences peace with her children who want to be their own individual such as France and Leo.

It seems that in immigrant family's that duty and living in close proximity together is more important than individual desire or freedom.

But unfortunately, her children's individual desires are breaking through the cracks with Em and her Arab boyfriend, France and her unhappy marriage to the perfect in-law, and Leo's affair with Helen a fellow Rabbi's wife. France is stuck in a loveless marriage Jonathan without stimulating conversation and fabulous sex because it was a marriage of convenience.

Her husband wants his own success and it astounds me how Claudia assumes that her husband will always be the failure. Norman wants also his day in the sun thus drawing him closer to Selina. For Norman, Selina represents someone who acknowledges his specialness outside being a spouse of a famous person. Selina is also interested in what Norman likes. Selina draws Norman to her because he feels under-appreciated by Claudia and his family for his skill.

The main issue for France is that she is a worrier who yearns freedom from her mother's rule but does not know how to escape. France is trapped in an unhappy marriage and is not ready to be a mother yet as can be seen by her disdain her children and step-children. To France, Jay represents an out of her dreary existence into the unknown. Jay also represents a way for to rebel against the straight and narrow path that Claudia made for her. I love how Jay makes fun of liberal hypocrisy in accepting gay people in theory but not in practical sense.

I enjoy Mendelson's discussion of Leo daydreams of his experience with Helen. If only time stopped, they were the only two people on earth and they had no obligations to anyone but themselves. Leo and Helen would live in a perfect world.

The question is why Leo pursued an affair with Helen providing momentary scandal to the Rubin's life not to mention Helen's family's life if they were not planning on running away together. The answer to this puzzling question is Leo's overriding sense of duty to his family and its properness initially kept him from fully committing to Helen. For Leo, Claudia's decision and thus success is closely tied to his duties as "the responsible son".

But once he figured out that he was madly in love with her, his priorities changed. I love how Mendelson explains Leo's obsession with Helen because he is in love with her. I love how Mendleson describes Helen and Leo coupling as if they were fire yearning for oxygen. I like how Mendleson keeps us in suspense on what Leo will do whether he will stick to his duty to his mother, family, and community or will he give into his individual love for Helen. I like how Leo finally has the courage to bring Helen to his family Seder because he is in love with her. Leo needs to understand that Helen wants them to be their own couple before coming back to family as interdependent entities instead of dependent on the family for his life. In this way, Leo should follow France's lead in moving out and establishing himself outside familial life before coming back to the family.

He also realizes that Naomi is not right for him because he is not in love with her because Naomi is just a continuation of what his mother wants for him. Leo also realizes it is not just sex he is after after he turns down his co-worker to go to a prostitute to take his mind off things. I can understand Leo's frustration in his life that he sees is not going where he wanted it to go. For him, he is just lacking companionship.

I think it is interesting how the children who are the most flawed with Simeon's drug habits and womanizing and Em discarding partners as if they were old clothes tend to defend tradition and order whereas the children who are seen as the most responsible Leo and France are rebelling against authority figures. The lesson here is that everyone needs a dynamic equilibrium in which security at home is balance with an external dynamic life.
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