Wednesday, September 10, 2008

REVIEW: Second Language, by Ronna Wineberg

Second Language, by Ronna Wineberg. Published 2005 by New Rivers Press. Shorts stories.

Click on the cover to buy from the IndieBound-affiliated independent bookseller of your choice.

Second Language is a brief but compelling collection of short stories by New York writer Ronna Wineberg. It is also the runner-up for the 2006 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction. The stories are all about lives in transition or lives about to change- a husband who realizes he and his wife may not be as compatible as he thought; a woman who finds out she may have cancer; a woman whose husband has left her, and one who may leave her husband; a woman struggling to come to terms with her mother's terminal illness.

Wineberg's stories grew on me over the course of the volume. There are thirteen stories in the book and her characters gain emotional weight and resonance little by little. At first it seemed that Wineberg was narrating situations more than characters; I had a hard time connecting with the people in her stories, even as I understood what I was supposed to be connecting with. For example, in the story "The Lapse," a religious man named Edward slowly realizes he may have erred in marrying his wife Joanne, who is less observant and less willing to lead the religious lifestyle he wants for the family. I understood the tensions that would exist in a marriage such as this, but the characterizations seemed shallow to me, like Edward and Joanne were types as opposed to individuals. However, later in the book, in stories like "After We Went South, " "Verse of the Han" and the wonderful "The Night Watchman" Wineberg digs deeper into her characters and I empathized with them even when, in "Verse of the Han," the protagonist's behavior bordered on the psychotic. But that's what good writers can do- make clear the incomprehensible, make familiar the person who is so different from us (or the writer herself) that we understand their feelings as if they were our own.

Although the subjects of the stories- illness and infidelity- were slightly repetitive, I really enjoyed this collection overall. The more subtle themes, about the search for love, family, acceptance and self-respect, resonanted and shone. I like how Wineberg looks at betrayal, isolation and fear, as well as longing and love, in different ways, through different sides of the prism if you will. The last story, "The Doctor," about a man helping a longtime, bereaved patient deal with the initial stages of loss, is sad but quietly optimistic as the doctor tries to connect with the elderly man over a pile of outdated coins the man had saved years ago; the coins shine "like a promise," and it's on the word promise that the book ends. It fits.


Anna said...

Great review. I'm always looking for good short story collections!

sheistoofondofbooks said...

OK, I scrolled thru your review after reading the first paragraph ... I try not to read reviews before I read a book that I'll soon be reading/reviewing, but I'm glad to be getting a positive "vibe" from what I did peek at. Looking forward to reading *Second Language!*