Heaven: seven Jewish women, all mothers of famous men, drift languidly with our recently-departed narrator through the celestial rooms up above, here noshing a bit or indulging in a feast, there playing music or games or just lounging. Their main occupation in the afterlife is dissecting the lives and works of their illustrious sons: Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, Albert Cohen, Romain Gary, the Marx brothers, and Woody Allen. And dealing with their Jewish mother guilt. Did they do a good job raising their kids? Must they take responsibility for their sons’ failures as well as successes, glaring faults, even suicides?
Our guide, Rebecca, a mere 38 years old, has perished in a car accident, leaving behind a teenage son. She’s eager to learn the secrets of success from these older women. Ought she to feel guilty about her maternal lapses? Must she worry, as they do, about her son for all eternity? She pokes and prods them into divulging secrets, pulling the curtain back on the inner lives of these men. To be certain, the women are a bit touchy at times; she must take care to flatter them and praise their sons’ achievements while tamping down their rampant competitiveness, as she tries to fit into their inner circle.
Most of the women freely admit to being overbearing, overindulgent, overly involved in their sons’ affairs. Fortunately for Rebecca and the reader, she is a professor of French literature and well versed on each of the men, familiar both with their biographies and their literary careers. The mothers fill her in on love affairs, personality quirks, family secrets. They never stop talking about how they funneled all their desires, ambitions, love into their boys. They derived meaning and channeled their own ambitions vicariously, many constrained by the mores of the day. A woman could be a mother and be acclaimed; not so easy to stand on her own and accomplish great works.
The author David-Weill is in real life a PhD in French literature residing in Belgium, and it shows. In conversation with the mothers, Rebecca, a stand-in for the author, reveals an encyclopedic knowledge of the sons and their literary or cinematic works, providing a biographical gloss for the readers. The end result depends on the reader. For American audiences who have probably never heard of the writers Albert Cohen or Romain Gary, learning more biographical details about them is probably not an urgent matter on the agenda.
Why did the author choose these men over others? For one thing, they wrote about their mothers (see Book of My Mother by Albert Cohen) or commented on their power as Freud did here: “A man who has been his mother’s indisputable favorite never loses that feeling of a conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success.” Freud explains his mother’s doting on him to the exclusion of his siblings: “A mother finds true satisfaction only in her relationship with her son, on whom she can transfer her own suppressed ambitions.”
What the David-Weill excels at is reanimating these Jewish mothers with all their touchiness and quirkiness, and imagining them interacting with each other, examining and justifying their rationales for raising their sons as they did. Each mother without exception never wavers in the conviction that her son is a genius and destined for greatness. More to the point: none of them regrets creating a chokehold on their child and ruining him for normal interactions with a life partner. Not one of them entertained the notion of creating a life of her own with something other than her son as a focus. Over and over we learn of dysfunction, of hypochondria, of depression. Yet, look at the results!
So that is the premise of this slim volume—dead Jewish mothers obsessively reviewing the lives of their sons and questioning if they should have done something differently. David-Weill does an admirable job in recreating these women, making them three dimensional, and imagining their take on the lives and careers of their sons.
The writing is very smooth, and she manages to keep the story lively and interesting. However, I do have a few criticisms. When a writer creates an alternate universe, in this case, Heaven, she needs to let the reader know how it works. Here, the narrator stumbles through the rooms, listening to the women talking incessantly about their sons, puzzling over the actual set-up in Heaven which apparently includes eating and sleeping.
She confesses more than once that she does not really understand how Heaven works nor why she wound up in such illustrious company. We have to presume it is because of her vast knowledge of the literary works and biographical data of the sons in question. A good guess, but by the end of the story shouldn’t the reader have a clear conception of how this utopia works and the purpose behind the endless ruminations of the mothers? Why are these particular women together? Are there others in the wings? Philip Roth is mentioned a few times but his mother never materializes. Does the author have nothing to say about Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, E.L. Doctorow, Joseph Heller, Jules Feiffer? Perhaps the title should be French/European Mothers Never Die. But again, they do die, they just never stop talking, bragging, kvelling about their offspring.
My understanding of Heaven as conceived of by David-Weill: Heaven is strolling through the grounds of an immense chateau, dwelling on the fame and successes of your wonderful boychik, joined by several other bright and fascinating mothers, who are just as eager as you to hear all about him and tell you all you ever wanted to know about their illustrious sons.
American readers may find the book lacking in plot. The characters easily blend into each other in a confusing way. And where is the humor the title suggests we will find in this book? The laugh track? French and European readers, judging by their books and cinema, strike me as more willing to put up with long-winded intellectual discussion.
This book was first released in 2014 and is available now in this edition translated by Molly Grogan.
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