Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Athena K.'s Review - The Finkler Question

I have to say it up front - I didn't love this book.  The first several pages of The Finkler Question introduce us to a rather unsympathetic protagonist, who is so obsessed with Jewish culture that he thinks he might actually, secretly, be Jewish - despite a complete absence of evidence to suggest it. His obsession starts to border on, and then crosses the line into the realm of racism; specifically, anti-Semitism.  This is where I got uncomfortable and frustrated with the book.

Throughout the novel, we experience the inner thoughts of Julian Treslove, a womanizer and spinner of romantic-tragic fantasies usually involving the untimely death of women he loves - who he has also just met.  He's a man who has failed in all significant aspects of his life - love, career, fatherhood - and he's not someone I have any real expectation that he will turn his life around.  After a trivial incident involving being mugged and thinking, perhaps, that his mugger, a woman, called him a "Jew," Julian grows more and more obsessed with anything and everything Jewish.  Most of his inner thoughts take the form of backhanded compliments (as an almost random example, he assumes a young girl to be precocious because she is also Jewish) But his thoughts come from a place of exotifying and idealizing the Other.  He and the other characters we meet think almost always in terms of "us" and "them" - Jews and non-Jews.  It gets grating after a while.  Perhaps it made me uncomfortable because it forced me to think about the fact that we all have similar conversations internally - thoughts that if we shared would be considered racist (or sexist, ageist, etc.), but we can't prevent our minds from drawing distinctions or repeating stereotypes, even if we can choose not to say them aloud. It made me uncomfortable to consider this for too long. 

But I still wanted to know why Julian was so obsessed with Jewish culture - was it his empty childhood and the desire to be part of a family?  His obsession with tragedy?  His buried jealousy of Sam Finkler?  I'm still not sure I know.

In the end, the broader subject matter (Israel and Palestine, hate crimes, memory and love) as well as the incredible depth each of the main characters possesses - especially Libor in his grief - redeemed book for me in some ways.  Jacobson's precise character description, delivery of dialogue, and clever use of language certainly establish him as a great novelist.  But I still find myself wanting to read the other 2010 finalists to see if I would have chosen differently. 


  1. Insightful review...I especially like the way you point out how our inner thoughts are not always laudable, but they are there nonetheless.

    I have this on my TBR shelf...

  2. Have read different reviews of this novel. Like Amy your review is also insightful. Now I have to read it myself though I am mostly uncomfortable when books become 'racial' in its tone.

  3. I was pleased to find your review Athena, because I had read so many rave reviews I was beginning to think it was 'just me'. I didn't hate it - it was full of such wonderful language, and there were times when I laughed out loud. But I really didn't understand the characters, and I found the story rather depressing. I too must read some of the other shortlisted books.