Tuesday, August 11, 2009

REVIEW: You or Someone Like You, by Chandler Burr

You or Someone Like You, by Chandler Burr. Published 2009 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.

You or Someone Like You is the first novel by New York Times perfume critic Chandler Burr, and it's not for the faint of heart. Set among the Hollywood elite in the upscale neighborhoods and toney restaurants of Los Angeles, its focus is the marriage of Anne and Howard Rosenbaum, she an educated English lover of literature, and he a New Yorker and ex-Orthodox Jew now working as a top exec in the movie business.

The novel opens with the scene of Howard leaving the family home; Burr takes the reader back to the beginning, telling the story of Howard and Anne's relationship from Anne's point of view. Anne and Howard fall in love in New York City but Anne finds that she is rejected by Howard's Orthodox family; they get married anyway and move out to Los Angeles, returning to New York only for holidays. Tired of being frozen out, eventually Anne stops attending. In the meantime the couple adjusts to life in L.A.; Howard starts teaching undergrad lit classes and is offered a job in publishing to pitch books to movie producers; later he goes to work for a studio. Later, Anne, herself a literature Ph.D., finds herself in demand as a book-club hostess and ends up coordinating and leading so many literary salons that she has to hire a personal assistant- and soon finds her own Hollywood star rising. Then her son finds himself on the wrong side of halakah, Jewish law (which states that only children born of a Jewish mother are Jewish), and his parents' marriage falls apart.

And this is when the novel really gets going, and when the more controversial aspects of the book kick in to high gear. Howard's sudden shift back to Orthodoxy and the consequences for himself and his marriage are not easy to watch. Burr takes both Anne and Howard to some dark places as they work out their anger and frustration and treads on some very delicate ground around Judaism and what it's like to be a gentile in a Jewish community. At the same time, he draws a compelling picture of an intelligent woman who becomes ever more desperate to get her husband's attention, even using the book clubs as a means of communicating with him once he's cut her off.

You or Someone Like You struck me almost as a manifesto in novel form as Burr works out his anti-religious principles through the fallout of a marital crisis. It's a book that really made me think, and although I didn't always agree with his point of view and I didn't always like his characters (Howard, a decent guy who struggles with himself, came off as much more sympathetic for me than did Anne, a hyper-intellectual who channels her anger through a thin veneer of logic and loses her dignity as a result), I'm glad I read it. I don't know quite who is the ideal audience; a lot of how someone will feel about the novel will depend on the extent to which the reader is sympathetic to Burr's agenda, and how comfortable the reader is with taking an intellectualized approach to a volatile, emotional subject. As a character-driven family drama it was compelling enough, if not exactly a page-turner, and if you're up for it, I'd recommend it.

You can click here to read my interview with author Chandler Burr


FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.