Sima's Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger-Ross. Published 2009 by Overlook Press.
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Set in the Jewish-Orthodox neighborhood of Boro Park, New York, Sima's Undergarments for Women centers on Sima Goldner, an older woman who runs a lingerie shop in her basement, one of many such under-the-radar neighborhood businesses dotting this close community. Sima and her husband, Lev, are childless and entering late middle age locked in a tense relationship characterized by a lack of communication and a lack of warmth. The shop is Sima's domain, her escape, and her means of establishing relationships with her community.
Then one day, a beautiful young Israeli woman named Timna enters the shop. Newly arrived in America, Timna, who as it happens is a skilled seamstress, ends up working for Sima, doing alterations and selling lacy pretties to the customers. Sima is smitten with Timna and soon builds a vivid fantasy life around the quiet young lady, leading her to become ever more attached and involved in her life.
The story unfolds on a double time line- the present and the past comingling as Stanger-Ross takes the reader to the early days of Sima's marriage and her struggles with fertility. Sima is devastated that she cannot have children, and this sadness fuels her alienation from her husband and her involvement in work. Now, I understand that Sima's feelings towards Timna are supposed to come from her thwarted maternal instinct- Timna is supposed to represent a surrogate daughter. However, Sima's behavior- sniffing Timna's sweaters, obsessing over her love life, dressing up in a disguise and stalking her- strikes me as less maternal tenderness and more mental illness. Couple this with her bitterness and nasty coldness towards her husband, and, despite the personal tragedy of her infertility, she comes across as quite unpleasant.
So it's a problem when a novel hinges on your compassion for a character who's actually quite unhinged herself. Timna seems like a normal enough young woman- outgoing, busy, lots of friends, with normal post-adolescent ups and downs with parents and boyfriends, but really almost all we know about her is that she's pretty and from Israel. Sima's husband Lev strikes me as the real tragic figure of the novel. He sits upstairs by himself all day, his loneliness relieved only by occasional visits from his wife's employee who comes up to share a cup of coffee and a little conversation, while his wife berates, belittles and humiliates him. Much of the novel's melodrama focuses on Sima's low self-esteem but Lev deserves a lot better than what he gets for most of the book, too.
On balance I think Stanger-Ross has written a good first novel, and I know a lot of other reviewers saw different things in it than I did, and I respect that. I wouldn't want to dissuade anyone else from giving it a go who's interested in women's or Jewish-interest fiction but for me it was hard to like only because Sima was so hard to like. What I like best about Sima's Undergarments for Women is the way Stanger-Ross has created a microcosm of womens' lives and moods and feelings. It's a neighborhood shop filled with different kinds of families, women and men, where all kinds of personal and domestic dramas are played out over what bra to buy- weddings, bat mitzvahs, training bras, bras to show off in, bras to hide in, bras for comfort and fashion and fun. And her lead characters, Sima and Timna, certainly exemplify the many stages and permutations of a woman's life as well.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.