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  They Aren’t All Just Gymnasts, You Know

Review by Tom Keech

This novel’s elegant prose beautifully mirrors Miri’s artistic eye for the colors and shapes of the natural world she sees in in her small-town life in war-torn, Holocaust-haunted and poverty-stricken 1950s Romania. Living with her brother, sister, parents, grandparents, and an orphan whom they took off the street and use as a cook, in a shabby part of a formerly elegant apartment building, she loves and is loved by them all. She has no idea that her family is looked down upon because they are Jews until her first puppy love humiliates her in front of all the other boys in the town. This in spite of the fact that she knows she is the most beautiful female he will ever know.

When she is nine, her father leaves her mother for another woman and for the hope of escaping Romania. She despises her mother for begging him to come back. The cook finds her own long-lost sister and leaves to live a life of her own. At sixteen, absolutely convinced that she is the most beautiful woman in the world, she succeeds in supplanting the girlfriend of her 23-year-old art tutor. They walk around the town for a few years, feeling artistic and superior, until one day without warning he leaves her.

She graduates from high school but wants no career except to continue to paint and draw. She leaves Romania and goes to Israel on her own, luxuriating in the vistas of the coastline, the sunny skies and the bit of Jewish history she explores on trips around the land.

She stops painting and tires of her hard-working life, so she seduces a plastic surgeon who puts her up in a small but beautiful apartment and visits her for sex once a week. She takes art history courses but can’t really get interested in them. She has an acquaintance who begs her to draw him, and she does. When he later comes to her apartment to ask if he can have the drawing, she refuses, giving him consolation sex instead.

She isn’t quite satisfied yet  that she has been fairly compensated for her beauty and style, but that feeling changes when an older multi-millionaire instantly falls in love with her. She knows he is the man for her. He takes her to California where he has a mansion on the coast, and she immediately sets up shop, firing the cook on the first day, accepting luxury after luxury, and remodeling half the house to be her new painting studio – which she rarely uses.

…..She finds out he’s actually married to a woman in Oklahoma, and that does bother her a little, but she gives birth to twins and is assured he loves her more than anyone else. Showered with money and surrounded by servants, she can do whatever she wants – which pretty much means making her man constantly praise her beauty and succumb to her sex appeal, spending his money, and constantly bickering with everyone in the rest of the world who doesn’t instantly recognize her superiority.

This is a beautifully written book told by a writer with both an artist’s eye and a psychologist’s insight – and with quite a bit of political savvy thrown in. I didn’t understand all of the cross-currents of ethnic and national bias that seemed to be coloring almost everyone’s perceptions of everyone else in the country, but I did get the idea that these biases were woven deeply into the fabric of the Romanian consciousness.

I do have to say my interest dropped off somewhat after Miri left Romania and became a simple gold digger. This wouldn’t have been so bad if she had admitted to herself what she was, but she was such a plain, hard-edged whore I lost interest in her fate. If she had shown one drop of regret, or paused for one second of self-assessment, she might have made a more interesting character the reader could care more about.