This book was chosen as it was the winner of the Man Booker prize and so we, as a group,hoped for great things. It has three central characters.
Julian Treslove, aged 49, a melancholy former BBC arts producer, whose career is in decline. He is a veteran of failed relationships and a man whose chameleon-like qualities have brought him employment as a celebrity lookalike. He has two sons by two former partners neither of which he has much contact with and is obsessed with feelings of isolation. He comes over as a shallow man who is always worrying at something but he is never very focussed about what that something is.
The other main characters are his two oldest friends, Sam Finkler, a former schoolmate, and Libor Sevcik, their former teacher. Finkler is a successful, popular philosopher and broadcaster, and Libor, a former showbiz journalist. Both are intellectuals, both have been recently widowed and both are Jews. Libor is a Czech who remains besotted with the memory of his wife Malkie, a famous pianist who died at the age of 80. Finkler, has also lost his young wife, Tyler to cancer and masks this loss by putting on a brusque show of confident arrogance.
At the beginning of the book Treslove is mugged by a woman and is thrown into a spin of retrospective self doubt as he struggles to make sense of why this has happened. She takes his watch and wallet, and screams something indecipherable, which Treslove eventually deciphers, Woody Allen-like, as “You Jew!” The puzzling of these words mark the tone and subject matter of the work as this is essentially a book about Jewishness but it is a subject that wriggles and writhes and resists definition as Treslove acts out his own, ‘to be a Jew or not to be a Jew’ drama. This conundrum is fired by his long-simmering envy of his Jewish friends and awakens a determination to know and become all that is Jewish.
The reviews of this book boast witty writing and comic prose and it was the humour that we looked forward to but sadly did not easily find. It seemed to be a book that was always shouting, “I am funny” but none of us seemed to get the joke. The characters were hard to relate to and many of us found the book hard to finish. The representation of Jews and Jewishness were pushed toward caricatures that were hard to reconcile with our own experiences and the persistent focus seemed simply to be a long and sometimes self-indulgent examination by the characters of the nature and obligations of being Jewish.
This book was hailed as a masterpiece by many National and International newspapers but if so, we failed to find the kernel of genius in this nut.