Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

A small community in Connecticut. Three couples of middle age all have their respective struggles: Margot has never gotten over the loss of her baby girl, their three sons can only make up so much for this; while she is grieving, her husband Richard is having extramarital affairs to forget about his homely negative mood. Gunter and Rachel are new to the small place, the Swede has serious problems of adaptation and can only wonder about the small town Americans, whereas his wife Rachel tries to be supermom and get her children into the prestigious Petra school. Virginia’s daughter already attends this institution but the mother is starting to wonder if the place is actually a good choice while her husband Trip has developed an end of time fear and wants his family to be prepared for the worst case which is sure to come soon. While the parents are occupied with themselves, their kids are educated in a quite unique institution with very special educational views.

Bethany Ball paints a rather gloomy picture of three middle-aged families. The love at first sight and life on cloud number nine is only a faint memory, if they are still interested in their partner, this is more out of convenience than out of love. Their children are strange creatures with which they have rather complicated relationships and whom they do not seem to understand at all. Life does not have much to offer outside the big city and so, consequently, the turn into “The Pessimists”.

It is upper class white suburbia life that the novel ridicules: the invite the “right” people to dibber parties even though they hate barbecuing and do not even like their guests. The women are reduced to being housewives even though they had successful careers in the city, yet, these are not compatible with life in a small town. They are not even aware of how privileged they are, they feel depressed and deceived by life, seemingly none of them got what they expected from life. Apart from being miserable, they pretend that all is best in their life to keep up the picture they want the others to see. Only brief glances behind the facade allow the truth to show.

This rather dark atmosphere is broken up repeatedly by episodes of Petra school. It is the absolutely exaggerated picture of an alternative institution which actually does not take education too seriously, but is highly occupied with spiritual well-being and a lifestyle nobody can ever stick too. The information mails they send out to the parents are simply hilarious and made me laugh out loud more than once – however, I don’t doubt that such places might actually exist.

A satire of small town America which is funny on the one hand but quite serious regarding the message behind the superficial storyline.

Bethany Ball – What to do about the Solomons

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Bethany Ball – What to do about the Solomons

Yakov Solomon and his wife Vivienne could despair of their children. Their son Marc has left Israel and is a successful manager in L.A. now, but has to face some accusation of laundering. Their daughter Keren lives in a kibbutz where her husband Guy Gever slowly seems to lose his brains. Liv, another son, has long fled to Singapore to live with another man. Shira, a former TV star and actress, has divorced and raises her son alone but at the moment she has run out of money and hopes for support of her brother Marc. All members of the family eye each other from near and far, always suspicious of each other, yet, if necessary, they are one family. But now, Yakov is dead and his fortune needs to be split.

There were moments while I was reading I thought: “What a luck these characters are only real in the novel and do not actually exist”. Take Shira. She wants to revive her career and flies to the USA. This isn’t something to blame a person for. But: she leaves her 11-year-old son alone at home. He not only has nobody to take care of him, but he does not have anything to eat either. Or Marc and his wife Carolyn. Her first reaction to the police searching their home is to roll a joint and to sink down into oblivion. Guy Gever who suddenly finds his creative vein after many years in the kibbutz – they are all quite strange and singular characters.

Reading this very meticulous drawing of characters was something I really liked about the novel. None of them is flat or stereotypical. Added to this comes a very poignant language which makes you laugh at times and stop breathing at others. There is some typical Jewish absurdity in the characters and in the novel which make it a great entertainment. We do not have the world on black and white, neither are the characters just heroes or losers.