I just spent the evening curled up on the couch with a glass of red wine and a really enjoyable novel: Jonathan Rosen's Joy Comes in the Morning. My friend Emily said it made her think of me, so she lent me her copy. I devoured it in one long, happy sitting.
The protagonist of Joy Comes in the Morning is Deborah Green, a rabbi with whom I felt an immediate kinship. Maybe because the book begins with her morning prayers -- and her distractions, and her rueful recollection that she always means to davven more often than she actually does. (What? That rings a bell for me, and I love the reminder that even rabbis are human.)
Maybe I identified with her because she chose active Jewishness as an adult, or because she likes to sing, or because she grew up in the west and has chosen a northeastern life. Or maybe Rosen just made her a likeable character. One way or another, I connected with Deborah from the first page, and I rode the book's rollercoaster with her: her hopes, her crises, her wry musings on rabbinic life. "Deborah sometimes joked that being a rabbi was like working for a boss that everyone hated, like collecting rent in a bad neighborhood" made me laugh out loud, as did "Rabbis were spiritually promiscuous -- they belonged to everybody and nobody."
The second major character we meet is Henry Friedman, an older man who has had a stroke and who is planning to commit suicide to spare himself and his family his inevitable decline. He fails; in the hospital he is ministered to by Deborah. That's where Deborah meets Lev, Henry's son, a reporter for a science magazine. The defining fact of Lev's life to date is that he left his fiancée at the altar, and his life has been complicated (and a little empty) ever since.
And that's all the plot summary I'm going to offer, because this book is really worth reading and I don't want to spoil it for anyone. Rosen moves skillfully from one character's point of view to another, drawing out the book's overarching themes: how interconnected we are, the nature of faith (ineffable though it might be). This book asks, what does it mean to be religious? Is God real, and does that matter? These are important questions, and I'm impressed that this novel asks them. I'm even more impressed that, having reached the end, I think it may offer answers.
It's possible I loved this book because it's uniquely designed to make me happy: it's about a rabbi, relationships, faith, joy, love. What's not to like? (I felt that way about Myra Goldberg's Bee Season, too. How many popular novels are there which focus on geek kids, orthography, and the mysticism of Abraham Abulafia? Too darned few, I tell you.)
But I suspect this book is excellent even to people who are not me. (These reviews suggest that I'm right.) So if you're looking for a good read featuring real human characters and an interesting, poignant, and funny journey into Judaism, pick up Joy Comes in the Morning. The copy I just read is going back to my friend Emily, but I might have to invest in one of my own; this is a book that belongs on my shelf.