Wherever You Go: A Novel by Joan Leegant

hdbblog's review

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I feel I need to begin this review by mentioning the fact that Wherever You Go is not a light read. Not in the least. I was mistakenly under the impression that this relatively short read would be something light and introspective. While the book definitely raises some amazing discussion points and questions, it is by no means an easy read. It took me a lot longer to read this than anything else I've read this month. Mainly because I'd find something I wanted to mull over and have to stop reading. That being said, I also need to state that my review is entirely based on my current state of mind. This book was something that I enjoyed reading, but I didn't fall completely in love with it. Mainly because my mindset right now is just not ready to deal with such deep reading.

Yona, Mark and Aaron are all at a point in their lives where they are looking for something more. After floating, trying to figure out where they belong, they end up back at their roots looking for answers. These three lives are different, but similar enough to tie together beautifully. The questions of faith and commitment are deeply ingrained in this book, along with both personal and external reflections. Although this book revolves around Jewish faith, there is a lot here that expands beyond that other religions. It is definitely a reflective read that will cause you to mull over the bigger picture.

What really hampered my enjoyment of this book though was the pivotal event that ties all of these people together. I won't spoil it, but it really felt rather convenient and forced to me. After that I felt like the characters were just rushed into the ending. All the growing, learning and introspection that they had accomplished just seemed to fade, as the ending loomed. It's not that I didn't understand why the book had this turn, I did. I just felt like the first half of the book was so much more fascinating and deep than the second half.

Unlike anything else I've read lately, this story was laden with insights about Israeli and American culture, as well as humanity as a whole. These characters are deep and well portrayed, but their lives seemed to never come to a nice closure for me. Overall I enjoyed Wherever You Go enough to finish it and keep thinking about it even after. I quite honestly would have loved it even more if the climax hadn't been so rushed.

thepickygirl's review

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Joan Leegant's novel Wherever You Go is both exactly what you'd expect and nothing you'd expect from a novel set in Israel. Personally, I expected judgment and religious discourse. Instead, I found a very thoughtful novel, which I thought aptly expressed the ambiguity toward Israel many Americans feel.

Partially, Leegant is able to do this because of her characters: three Americans with arms and legs and whole bodies reaching, willingly or unwillingly, to that Holy Land, Jerusalem. Yona - to see her estranged sister, now a mother of five married to a radical and living in the West Bank. Mark - whose return to New York causes him to question his devotion and career, teaching the Talmud. Aaron - to find a place to fit, away from his famous father's gaze and disapproval.

The three are connected only by one instant in the novel, toward the very end, and I very much appreciated the more natural flow. I dislike it when authors attempt to neatly pull together three characters without much cause, in an attempt to change them in some way. In Wherever You Go, however, the change has been occurring, and the reader witnesses the transformation through flashbacks and narration: Yona's acceptance of herself and her sister; Mark's realization that a devoted life doesn't have to be a purely sacrificial life; Aaron's attempt to overcome apathy.

Since it is such a character-driven novel, it did take me a bit to get into, but I should also tell you how much I fell in love with Mark Greenglass. I could honestly have followed him alone throughout the entire novel. I loved that Leegant juxtaposed his addiction to drugs with his addiction to the Talmud and how oblivious he is to it until he must face the one person capable of recalling him to his former self. He stays, awkwardly, in his parent's luxurious Manhattan home while there on a teaching job, and his vain, proud mother slowly tries to make up for his father's coldness. And the moment when he realizes he has been punishing himself because of his former life only reinforced the beauty of his character.

In Wherever You Go, Leegant is critical of extremism, whether through Yona's multiple affairs with married men, Mark's denial of human affection, or Aaron's misguided political beliefs. For as much as this is a book about Judaism, it's much more a book about fanaticism and the guises we use to cover up brutality and cruelty.