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by Yona Zeldis McDonough

A Jewish Girl’s Summer Among New England WASPs

It’s 1987 and Eve Rosen, a young aspiring editor, abruptly leaves her lackluster job in New York City and decamps to Cape Cod. Once there she becomes the assistant to a well-regarded older male writer and is ushered into the kind of heady literary life she’s only been able to dream about. Author Karen Dukess talks to Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough about The Last Book Party (Henry Holt), her witty and tender debut novel.

YZM: Does Eve feel intimidated by the largely non-Jewish crowd she finds herself in withkaren dukess that summer? 

KD: Eve is definitely intimidated by this crowd, but the aspect of their difference from her own background that most unsettles her – and also attracts her – is not that they are not Jewish, but that they are writers and artists. Eve believes that if she had been born into a literary world instead of the conventional, upper-middle class, professional world of her family, her path to becoming a writer would be smoother. She’s comfortable with people like her parents who read The New Yorker (or just subscribe and let it pile up) but she is intimidated by people who write for The New Yorker. Everything about this crowd is “other” to Eve – they are accomplished, sophisticated and worldly in a way that Eve yearns to be. That they are mostly WASPy is just one more factor of difference.

YZM: How does Eve respond to the anti-Semitic remarks made by Tillie, her employer’s wife? 

KD: Initially, Eve doesn’t read these remarks as anti-Semitic. They are just another way that Tillie seems to make assumptions about Eve and to show her lack of interest in actually getting to know Eve. . Eve doesn’t perceive this, but some of these remarks – like assuming that all Jews eschew pork or stay home on Friday nights – are an indication of how few Jews Tillie actually knows. The remarks are dismissive and belittling to Eve, but they also reflect how Tillie is somewhat unworldly herself. She lumps them all together as one instead of having the knowledge, from her own experience or interest, that there are all kinds of Jews and that most American Jews, in fact, are not observant.

YZM: What does Eve think when she learns that literary darling Jeremy Grand is really Jeremy Greenberg? 

KD: When Eve first meets Jeremy and learns of his connection to the Cape Cod literary crowd, she assumes he is part of that elite, WASPy, prep-school circle. When she discovers that Jeremy is, in fact, a suburban Jew like she is, she realizes that he, too, is drawn to that Cape Cod out of a sense of inferiority and a belief that his own background isn’t “good enough” to become the kind of writer he wants to be. This is what both draws Eve and Jeremy together and draws them apart; no one likes to be reminded that they are a striver, a wannabe. 

YZM: Let’s talk about Eve’s affair with her older employer, Henry?  #Metoo or something else? 

KD: In writing their affair, I was very conscious of underscoring Eve’s agency in that she wanted this relationship with Henry. They come together through books – through a shared sensibility and sense of humor. In this way, she has more of a connection with Henry than she does with Franny, his son, who would be a more appropriate choice for Eve – because of his age and the fact that he is not married. But Eve likes Henry and he likes her. Yes, there is a power imbalance in that she is working for him, but their relationship does not feel transactional to Eve. This is not a serious job – it’s a summer stop-gap, much like their affair. Eve wants the involvement with Henry and she has a positive experience with him both sexually and intellectually 

YZM: Eve’s parents favor her brilliant older brother. Are Eve’s parents or mother guilty of sexism?

KD: There is a latent sexism in how Eve’s parents relate to their children and Eve is aware of it. She knows that they are more concerned with her brother Danny’s achievements and future than with hers. When Eve tells her father that she plans to quit her job in publishing and go work for Henry in Cape Cod for the rest of the summer, she realizes that his quick acceptance of the move is not just because he is a supportive parent but because he assumes that, ultimately, she will find a man to provide for her. My own father was a great champion of women – he was a trustee of Barnard College – but as one of three daughters, I’ve often wondered if he might have guided my sisters and me differently if we’d been boys.

The more important aspect of Eve’s parents’ attitude toward their children, however, is in regard to Danny’s mathematical brilliance. Eve’s mother believes that genius is a gift that you’re born with and that if you have talent but not genius, that’s OK for a hobby but not a serious pursuit. Eve has absorbed this message and it’s part of why she can’t write. She is convinced she is not brilliant and believes, therefore, that pursuing writing is pointless. Yet she keeps coming up against her desire to do it. The book comes down in favor of doing what you love regardless of your genius or brilliance or likelihood of acclaim or success.  

YZM: What does Eve learn about her own desire to be a writer from her summer on Cape Cod? 

KD: Eve learns that wanting to write is all that she needs to give it a serious go. She learns that she can pursue her own path simply because she wants to. She has the impulse to write and she has to honor that. She learns that becoming a writer is not about who you know or who you sleep with or what your family history might have been. Eve learns that if she works at it, she will figure out what her story is. I think Eve’s struggle to claim her voice is something a lot of people go through. Women, in particular, often wait for permission to do what they want to do. They think they need a degree, or some kind of certification that they are “good enough.” But all they really need to do is take themselves seriously enough to act.

© 2011 Lilith Magazine