Book Review: The Book of Dahlia
The Book of Dahlia, by Elisa Albert (Free Press, 2008)
A week into the Jewesses With Attitude Summer Reading List, and I’ve finished The Book of Dahlia and am about halfway through Away. So far, good picks, if I do say so myself.
The Book of Dahlia was unlike any other novel I’ve ever read. And not just because the narrative voice is, let’s say, spicy. Which it is. And engaging, funny, and original. Full of the kind of snarky, sniping self-assessment, gossip, and observation that I like in a book (and in a friend, truthfully). No. What makes The Book of Dahlia so unique is its refusal to fit into any conventions of plot or chronology. Sure the book starts with Dahlia’s diagnosis and ends with her demise (I promise I’m not giving anything away here), but in between, Elisa Albert manages to flow in and out of Dahlia’s personal history, theoretically looking for answers to those pesky unanswerable questions: “Why Dahlia? Why cancer?” What’s most impressive about that flaunting of the standard plot structure is that Albert manages, as the end of the book nears, to mirror the disintegration of Dahlia’s mind with increasingly fragmented and unpleasant memories. As a writer, it’s the kind of structure I have the good sense to admire and not to try and emulate.
Thinking about the portrayal of Dahlia and her family is an interesting exercise. Because (aside from Dahlia, who’s like no one I’ve ever met or read about) they just toe the line of stereotype. Margalit, her mother, is a loud, brash, overbearing Israeli, BUT she also abandons her family in pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. Bruce, her father, is rich, and spoils Dahlia to an unreal degree, BUT he seems to have no ego and is perhaps the most sympathetic character here. Danny, her brother, is the worst big brother ever. Really just a horrible person. AND he doesn’t get any better. AND he becomes a rabbi. It’s as though Albert is trying to lure us in by making her characters familiar, but then wham! hits us with just how unusual this situation really is. Even without the brain tumor.
And then there’s Dahlia. She’s managed to sort-of survive among the worst childhoods I’ve read about in recent fiction (not in the Angela’s Ashes way, more in the purely emotional punching bag way). But when we meet her she’s also recently acquiesced to moving back under her father’s wing (and financial support) in L.A., having attempted to live a functional adult life in New York. With every new bit of information that Albert provides us about Dahlia, her fate manages to both seem more inevitable and even sadder. Of course Dahlia’s doomed, we think. Look what’s happened to her up until now! Albert does not shy away from the ambiguous stance that Dahlia is both a victim of her dysfunctional childhood and her own worst enemy for hardly trying to move beyond it. She also offers us virtually no taste of redemption for Dahlia, even in that midnight hour. Like I said. It’s unlike any other novel I’ve ever read.
So you’re wondering if I recommend this book. I have to say that if you’re the kind of reader who likes a book with lots of twists and turns, the kind of reader who likes to idolize the main character, or the kind of reader who’s squeamish about strong language, this probably is not quite up your alley. On the other hand, if you’re the kind of reader who is interested in complicated characters (you are, aren’t you), who likes innovative ways of telling a story (of course you do), and who likes to be surprised by a fresh, painfully honest voice (and who doesn’t?) then I would pick it up.
As a side note, I rarely buy hardcover books, but this edition has a bonus short story in the back, one of the several from Albert’s debut collection How This Night is Different, which I savored like little balls of cantaloupe chewing gum after sushi.