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.


bermudaonion said...

I love the title and the cover, but after your review, I'm not sure if I want to read the book.

Frances said...

Kaaterskill Falls was a wonderful book, but this does seem, to borrow a word from you, cartoonishly simplistic. As if the author picked the most obvious and diametrically opposed points of affiliation for the two parents. That would put me off right from the start.

The Believers by Zoe Heller is another interesting treatment of some of these same points. Loved that one.

Esme said...

What a funny book-I probably would not read it-but appreciated your review.

Zibilee said...

Ever since hearing that this book was written by Zach's brother, I have been intrigued. It reminds me a litte bit of The Believers by Zoe Heller, which was a fantastic read, and dealt with many of the same issues. If you haven't read that one yet, I do heartily recommend it to you. There are whole sections devoted to Orthodox Judaism in the book that I think you would really enjoy. As far as this book goes, I think I will probably skip it.

Marie Cloutier said...

Bermuda- yeah. :-)

Frances, Zibilee- I read THE BELIEVERS too and didn't like it. Honestly I thought its treatment of Orthodox Judaism wasn't much better but the real problem for me was that Rose's (?) interest in it struck me as unlikely and unrealistic; she seems to just dive right in from secularism, without really knowing anything about it- and going from secular to Orthodox Judaism would be like going from secular Christianity to evangelical fundamentalism all at once. It's a big, BIG leap. Anyway I'm glad to hear somebody (at least two people, LOL) liked that one, even if I didn't!

Esme- I don't think it would be your thing. :-)

Andi said...

Bummer! And I had such high hopes for Zach's bro (I'm sure he gets really sick of hearing that). Nothing is worse than bland. I'd rather a book be horrific than bland.

caite said...

even if I was one of three people in the world that liked The think I would have to agree with your issues on this one.
good review.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I just returned this one to the library unread --did not think it was for me after all.

Marie Cloutier said...

Andi- yeah :)

Caite- :-) thanks.

Diane- You probably just did yourself a favor. :-)

Anonymous said...

I don't think I will pick this one up, after reading your review.

Brandy said...

I have an ARC of this one on my shelf, picked up from ALA Midwinter. I'm disappointed to hear it wasn't very good, as I enjoyed his first book (Unthinkable Thought of Jacob Greene). Eventually I'll read it anyway, but it's getting bumped down the priority list.

Amy M. said...

I had this one on my list but I think I will put it on the backburner for now based on your review.

life by candlelight

Marie Cloutier said...

Lorri & Amy, yeah, that seems like the right move.

Brandy, the good news is, it's a quick read. :-)