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BOOK REVIEW: 'Suddenly, Love': Love Really Does Conquer All
Appelfeld, one of Israel's greatest novelists, portrays Ernst as a gruff seventy-year-old Red Army veteran from Ukraine who landed, almost by accident, in Israel after World War II. As a teen-ager, he joined the Communists who attacked Jewish shop-keepers, even though his own Jewish family ran a grocery store. When World War II started in 1939, Ernst joined the Red Army fighting the Germans.
There is no indication of the time of the novel, but judging by Ernst's age, I'm guessing it's the early 1990s. That would make it about right for Ernst to be a teen-age Communist activist in Bukovina -- in what was then Romania, now part of Ukraine -- just before the start of World War II. (What's going on now in Ukraine is nothing new in Europe, where boundaries don't last long. See: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/83980/Bukovina for the division of Appelfeld's native region of Bukovina between Romania and Ukraine). Appelfeld was born in Czernowitz, Bukovina, now part of Ukraine, in 1932.
Ernst is an aspiring author, a retired investment adviser who ives alone (his first wife and baby daughter were killed by the Nazis, drowned in the Bug River during the war). He's divorced from his second wife and spends his time laboring over his unpublished novels.
His caregiver -- he has serious medical problems and has been in and out of hospitals -- is Irena. She's in her mid-thirties, the unmarried daughter of Holocaust survivors who was born in a displaced persons (DP) camp in Europe. Irena has been taking care of Ernst since his surgery two years earlier; she arrives every morning promptly at eight and usually leaves every afternoon at three.
Irena is quiet and shy, in awe of Ernst’s intellect and does her best to encourage him. Whether she realizes it or not, she's falling in love with the old guy!
She's about as different from Ernst as it's possible to be. She's more or less religiously observant, unlike Ernst, who's antagonistic toward religion. And as the months pass, Ernst comes to depend on the gentle young woman who runs his house, listens to him read from his work, and occasionally offers a spirited commentary on it. Ernst also discovers religion, to his shock.
At first, the reader is led to believe that Irena is mild and shy -- which she is -- but we quickly learn that she's much stronger than she appears, showing signs of being what in some parts of the U.S. is known as a "steel magnolia." Along with the desserts she makes and he loves, she gives Ernst the will to live, to do battle with his demons, and won't take no for an answer as she helps him fight his ailments and his depression.
This is where the title kicks in: Ernst begins to realize that Irena is more than a cook and a house cleaner, although she excels in those areas. Ernst discovers that this woman half his age is in love with him -- and even more shocking -- that's he's in love with her, too.
"Suddenly, Love" is a wonderful look at something -- love -- we all need and we never get too much of. I was surprised that it was originally published in Israel 11 years ago, in 2003. It's taken this long for it to appear in the U.S. in English. If you don't read any other love story this year, make an exception for "Suddenly, Love."
About the author
Aharon Appelfeld is the author of more than forty works of fiction and nonfiction, including "Badenheim 1939", "The Iron Tracks" (winner of the National Jewish Book Award), "The Story of a Life" (winner of the Prix Médicis Étranger), and "Until the Dawn’s Light" (winner of the National Jewish Book Award). Other honors he has received include the Giovanni Boccaccio Literary Prize, the Nelly Sachs Prize, the Israel Prize, the Bialik Prize, and the MLA Commonwealth Award. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received honorary degrees from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, and Yeshiva University. Born in Czernowitz, Bukovina (now part of Ukraine), in 1932, he lives in Israel.
Publisher's website: www.schocken.com