Wednesday, July 7, 2010

REVIEW: Peep Show, by Joshua Braff

Peep Show, by Joshua Braff. Published 2010 by Algonquin. Fiction.

Peep Show is the story of the Arbus family. Divorced parents Martin and Mickey/Miriam have gone very separate ways; dad is a burlesque owner and mom is a ba'alat teshuvah, a recent convert to Orthodox Judaism. He's trying to keep his head above water in a business that's changing too fast for him, and she's trying to fit in in a rigidly conservative religious world. Their children get stuck in the middle. Debra/Dena is a teenager still living with her mother, and David is a young adult trying to navigate a way between his parents while maintaining a relationship with his sister who's being swept along in her mother's religious current.

Peep Show isn't a bad novel. The narrative focuses on David's choice between his mother's and father's respective lifestyle, and unfortunately both seem so inappropriate for him as an individual that it was difficult for me to know whose side to be on. Characters don't have to be nice people for a book to be enjoyable but it helps if there's at least something likable about them, and I suppose Braff comes down on the father's side, but only slightly, by making it clear that if nothing else, he cares about the unity of his family. Mickey is cartoonishly inflexible to the point that, while I can sympathize with her wish for a wholesome family life, one feels alienated from a concept of wholesomeness that seems to include cutting off one's own son. On the other hand, Martin's threats to her new life seem cruel and heartless.

The real problem with Peep Show for me isn't that it's bad, but that it's bland. Its criticism of Orthodox Judaism is simplistic, and the theme of what-happens-when-secular-and-Orthodox collide has been done in ways more compassionate and balanced in novels like Diana Spechler's Who By Fire and Allegra Goodman's wonderful Kaaterskill Falls. This book strikes me as a paler, less interesting version of those novels. Peep Show will acquaint the reader with isolated "fun facts" about Orthodoxy but without any context or appreciation for how they fit into the whole, so I wouldn't recommend this book for those wanting to learn about Orthodox Judaism. I'm not really sure to whom I'd recommend it, really; it just validates negative stereotypes about both secular and religious people without having much else to offer.

And yes, author Braff is the brother of the actor Zach.

Rating: BORROW

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.