Ruth Puttermesser is a single, Jewish New Yorker in her 30s who, despite being a well-read intellectual, is stuck in a dull civil service job. In fact, her intellect got in her way, causing her to be demoted from a dull job with some influence to a duller job with no influence. The opening story in this collection of stories by Cynthia Ozick paints a picture of Puttermesser that is remarkably specific and idiosyncratic while also being extremely relatable. Who wouldn’t prefer to get drunk on words and ideas while doing good in the world, rather than passing paper around to implement others’ (not so great and useful) ideas?
In the second story, Puttermesser takes action. Almost without realizing it, she creates a golem, a gigantic and growing lusty female one named Xanthippe. With Xanthippe’s help, Puttermesser becomes mayor of New York and fixes everything. The city is a paradise! For a while. The following stories follow similar patterns, of Puttermesser getting something she wanted, and then finding that things don’t turn out as she hoped. Her potential lover has different ideas from her, the cousin she help doesn’t need what she offers, even eternity falls short.
The stories were originally published separately and are, for the most part, not connected to each other, aside from having the same central character, facing disappointment in yet another way as she ages yet another decade. You might think from my description that the book is dark, but, for the most part, it really isn’t. Ozick’s wit and wordplay and sense of humorous juxtaposition keeps the book from wallowing in gloom. It’s dark comedy, which is often my preferred form for humor.
I wasn’t prepared for the episodic form of this book, which was a shame, because I was more in the mood for a story I could sink into, and that never happened with this. If I’d realized that it was disconnected stories, I would have chosen a different time to read it, but once I was in, I was interested enough to continue, and it is a good book, even if it didn’t quite line up with my mood.
However, there was a point near the end where the story got much too dark for me, where there’s an act of sexual violence that came out of the blue and left me with a sour taste in my mouth for the book as a whole. I imagine that the news this week made it even more stomach curdling than it would have been otherwise, but, as it is, I was pretty angry when I finished. It’s a minor moment, and, on reflection, it’s not enough to turn me against the book entirely, but I was very much not in the mood for that plot right now, especially when it was so entirely unnecessary.