Dearest Anne : A Tale of Impossible Love, by Judith Katzir. Originally published in Israel in 2003; translated by Dalya Bilu and published 2008 by the Feminist Press at CUNY. Literary Fiction. Translated from the Hebrew.
Dearest Anne is a beautifully-written novel set in the Israel of the 1970s, about the love affair between young Rivi and her beautiful teacher Michaela. Rivi is a young high school student when she begins her affair with 30ish Michaela, married and a new mother. As the story opens, Michaela has died and Rivi comes from her funeral to find the diaries chronicling the affair, which she has buried nearby. The novel is made up mostly of these diaries, which chart both Rivi's coming of age and the course of this tumultous affair.
Katzir has created a lyrical, literary love story about a very emotionally charged topic. I found the book utterly absorbing; Rivi comes across as a very real adolescent, rebellious and charming and dysfunctional. Her relationship with her parents is incredibly strained- her mother neglects her for a boyfriend, and her father has left the family for a new marriage and while he continues to care for his sons, he seems to have abandoned his daughter entirely. Rivi fills this gap with school and friends- and with her charistmatic literature teacher, who showers her with praise, attention and attraction.
From a psychological standpoint it is absolutely believeable (and a little scary) to me how this dysfunctional adult takes advantage of Rivi and preys on her weaknesses, without even really realizing how, or what, she's doing. I think the fact that Michaela is a woman and not a man has the effect of idealizing the relationship somewhat; if the relationship were heterosexual I think its inappropriateness would be a little clearer. As it is, the erotic and idyllic scenes of lovemaking and tenderness between them create a haze obscuring these questions at least somewhat. Rivi and Michaela are likeable people who do seem to genuinely care for each other, so as a reader I want the best for them but I'm not sure that for a 14 year old (or so), having an affair with a married adult is ever a really good idea. And I'd question how good it is for the adult either.
And it's questions like this that make the book tough to tackle- I procrastinated on writing this review for a long time, until I felt like I could tackle them in a way seemed appropriate. As it is, I don't really think I have it figured out but decided to just dive in anyway. I don't believe that people are gay or have gay relationships because there is something psychologically dysfunctional or wrong with them, and I don't believe that the sole explanation for Rivi and Michaela's affair is their psycholgoical baggage, but Katzir introduces elements of un-health into their psyches and I think it's fair to ask how these elements impact their attraction and their relationship.
This edition of the novel includes an essay discussing its critical reception, and its mixed reaction among gay and lesbian Israelis. Some find Michaela to be a stereotypically-negative predatory lesbian, and some believe that in the end she is punished for her transgressions while Rivi, having gone back to conventional heterosexuality, is rewarded, and these readers see judgements on the part of the author coming from their respective fate. It's a very complex issue, and I think these readers are on to something; but I really loved Dearest Anne for its beautiful writing and compelling plot and characters, as well as for the myriad of details about daily life in Israel. So if this sort of thing interests you at all I'd suggest you pick it up.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.