The Marrying of Chani Kaufman came out in Great Britain last year and was longlisted for last year's Booker Prize. Don't worry though- this is no stuffy "literary" book, although it is well-written, delightful and addictive reading.
Set in the present-day London neighborhood of Golders Green amid its Orthodox Jewish community, the story centers on a 19-year-old young woman named Chani who is about to get married to Baruch, a 20-year-old she barely knows. As the book opens she's preparing for the nuptials- getting dressed, getting nervous, and he's doing the same. The opening pages capture their anxiety as they shoulder tradition, the expectations of their families and their own innocence, and author Eve Harris conjures this mood so beautifully that these first few pages are what stay most in my mind.
From here Harris shifts perspective to the Rebbetzin, whose husband is the lead rabbi of this particular community. By extension she herself is an important community leader; women come to her for advice and it falls to her to take young Chani to the mikvah, or ritual bath, before her wedding day because Chani's mother is busy with her large brood (Chani is one of eleven children). But the Rebbetzin is deeply conflicted, having grown up secular and then come to Orthodoxy as a young woman when her then-boyfriend committed to a traditional Jewish life. The Rebbetzin has played her role well, admirably even, but now, in midlife and after suffering a traumatic miscarriage, she isn't so sure anymore. Harris takes us through her life's story and into her future.
We get to know Chani and Baruch's families, and see how they interact. Baruch spies Chani at a party and asks to meet her; his mother, a wealthy social-climber, isn't happy that a poor girl has attracted her precious son's attention and schemes to undermine the blossoming relationship. Chani, for her part, isn't sure she even likes Baruch but she knows she has to get married and he seems nice enough so she goes along with it. Ironically it's Baruch's mother's resistance that gets Chani to dig in her heels.
I'm telling you a lot about what happens, so I'll stop. The book isn't perfect; some of the conversations struck me as unrealistic but overall I think The Marrying of Chani Kaufman is a charming and absorbing novel with great characters and a winning couple at its center. I don't think it comes down as very negative about Orthodox life though there are characters who find frustration as their lot. There are also those who will find a way to make it work. The key to happiness, Harris seems to say, is rational balance and finding a partner with whom you can build happiness and satisfaction. Conflict only brings alienation. The book is very heavy on the details of Orthodox ritual and is clear and accessible enough to be a good read for someone interested in learning about that. If you're new to the subject I hope you won't be put off and miss out on this great read.