Two Jewish brothers grow up together in New Jersey. One stays in New Jersey to become a perfectionistic dentist. The other moves to New York and becomes Nathan Zuckerman, novelist, former husband to three different gentile wives.
The fates of the two brothers can develop in a variety of ways. Henry can become impotent as a result of his heart drugs and opt for surgery and die. Henry can survive the surgery but find life disappointing and make aliyah to Israel. Nathan can become impotent as a result of his heart drugs and opt for surgery and die. Nathan does not have a heart or potency problem, but he can have a Jewish problem as he acquires a fourth gentile wife, this time English, an unborn child and an uncertain life in a new culture.
One can have a life and one can have a counterlife. It can be this way, or it can be that way. But who are these characters, Henry and Nathan? Are they any more real than Maria? Maria is a slippery one. She may be Henry’s great lost love who returned to Switzerland. She may be Nathan’s potential love, the woman from upstairs. She may also be Nathan’s English wife, his effort to achieve the normal encumbrances of a wife and a house and a child. Maria has had enough to dancing to Nathan’s tune.
What I’m saying is that all the way back on page 73 I saw where you were preparing to take us, and should have got myself up and out before your plane even landed, let alone rushing to the airport to catch you sky-high still on the Holy Land.
Maria wants out of Nathan’s obsessions with Jews, with being Jewish, with his brother Henry, with her impossible family — all created so that he can make his points, not hers.
To be a Jew at Grossinger’s is obviously a bit of a bore–but in England being Jewish turns out to be difficult and just what you consider fun. People tell you, There are restrictions, and you’re in your element again. You revel in restrictions. But the fact is that as far as the English are concerned, being Jewish is something you very occasionally apologize for and that’s it.
Henry — the living dentist not the born-again Israeli — also does not want to continue being a character is Zuckerman’s books, as he takes it upon himself to destroy the Henry-life Nathan has depicted. Books with multiple or ambiguous endings sometimes irritate me, but this one, where the novelist’s characters turn on him and destroy his work, is just right.