“Gate of Heaven,” Rita Bennett
Risa Miller has chosen a good arena for her amateurish first novel, Welcome to Heavenly Heights
. Her book recounts the experiences of an American Orthodox woman and family who immigrate from Baltimore to an urban suburb in Israel's West Bank. But the novel has no plot. None at all. Events occur, but nothing happens.
Maybe that’s what real life is like one darn thing after another. So Tova, husband and children cope with the move, head lice, the road to Jerusalem, dust storms, money worries and the neighbors while the reader wonders when the story will begin. Finally, on page 85, one of Tova’s children falls through the glass top of a table. At last injury! conflict! drama! But no, the child is uninjured, and the subject is dropped until about 40 pages later when we learn that the glass has been replaced.
Around page 140, there's an exciting sequence, the best in the book, in which two 10-year-old schoolboys, Yossi and Binny (neither of them Tova’s children), get so drunk on Purim that one of them starts passing out and seems to be in serious medical trouble. Yossi, instigator of the drinking bout, brings Binny home to his doorstep and leaves him lying there (thoughtfully turning him on his side so he won't choke on his own vomit). Looking up at apartment windows “like shiny eyes,” he wonders “why they were crying.” That suggests that Binny is going to die. And then well, nothing. Dropped and never mentioned again. Binny turns up later in the narrative, so we assume he didn’t die.
True, a novel can downplay plot in favor of thematic connections, intensity of event and consistent power of language, but those elements too are mostly missing here.. The novel has some nicely turned phrases (Tova preparing for aliyah was “like a political cartoon with her feet in one continent and her head in another”), but useful or interesting insights are few. Some paragraphs demand rereading to clarify what is being told, and we get lots of details that ultimately don’t matter. For example, after the kid goes through the tabletop, the floor “glittered like mica, even after two vacuumings” and the “frame of the table stood empty, hollow and lonely” all of which adds to the sense that something portentous has happened, even though we soon figure out that nothing at all has happened.
To complicate matters, Miller switches narrative points of view to include the stories of three neighbor couples, a Holocaust survivor who heads the building’s tenant committee and a local rabbi whose wife suffers from muscular sclerosis. The effect is to rob the reader of a unified vision or an evaluative writer’s eye that might, in the absence of a story line, direct our interest. With so many changes of narrator plus a plethora of undeveloped minor characters, we never get deeply involved in anyone’s life. Near the end of the novel, we’re suddenly told the separate personal story of Tova’s neighbor Sandy’s visiting sister Ceil, but we have no clue why we should care or why these various characters have not been conflated into half their number and their stories given connectives to provide some narrative forward motion.
Although published by a mainstream house, this novel, which inexplicably won the PEN Discovery Award, resembles the sort of fiction published by small Jewish presses for Orthodox young people and housewives. It is thick with insistence on the goodness of life in general and religious life in particular, and its blessings include no heavy hint of sex, violence, serious political disagreement or any other nasty thing. Everyone is basically well-intentioned and if anything really bad happens, it happens far away. One of the neighbor women has a sharp tongue, sometimes the wives may get tired or a little cranky with each other or the kids and helicopters overhead remind the characters that there’s a war going on elsewhere, but our heroine generally glows like Rivka of Sunnybrook Farm, bravely maintaining a bright disposition.
At novel’s end, the family returns semi-permanently to America to tend to Tova’s sick father-in-law in Florida. Tova, getting news by mail from her Israeli neighbors, feels wistfully far away from Israel but in truth seems relieved by the distance. Is this the author’s caption to the aliyah experience? A remark about the questionable commitment of American immigrants? That’s another point not clarified.
One wants to like this novel, or this collection of fictionalized journal entries, or whatever it is after all, it’s about us Anglo immigrants, and it’s written by one of us, no doubt a nice and deserving person. But that’s exactly the trouble. Writers, Kafka informs us in his journals, “are not nice people.” Writers need some ruthlessness to penetrate through suburban niceness to the fierce and messy human truths beneath and if not that, they should at least entertain us. Unfortunately, we get neither educated nor amused in Heavenly Heights.