The Messy Lives and Loves of the Solomon Family
What to Do About the Solomons By Bethany Ball (Atlantic Monthly Press/Grove Atlantic, 288 pp. $25)
In her debut novel, what to do About the Solomons, Bethany Ball finds many ways for the far-flung dysfunctional Solomon clan to be unhappy—and a few to be happy. As she picks apart the lives, loves, successes and failures of this disparate family, she produces an engaging tale laced with a bit of humor and a heavy dose of sex, drugs and intrigue. Family ties, it seems, even when stretched to the limits, can still pull a group together.
Yakov Solomon, the 75-year-old patriarch, helped found the kibbutz where he and his wife still live. For Yakov, who built a highly successful construction company, “the kibbutz was a raw factory of human survival.” Yet the kibbutz system, which traces its origins to Europeans seeking an egalitarian life, has changed over the years and the peregrinations and failings of the Solomons can be said to mirror those of the kibbutz movement
Thanks to a family tree that precedes the narrative, the reader can keep the identities of the five Solomon siblings in order. The author paints their diverse lives in edgy, terse prose.
Of all the children, Marc’s vicissitudes are the most troubling. After serving as a naval commando in the Israel Defense Forces, Marc moves to Los Angeles and founds a lucrative asset management company. But federal authorities raided his offices and froze his assets, accusing him, mistakenly, of money laundering. The resulting legal case leaves him virtually penniless.
Marc’s sister Shira is an aging actress whose career appears to be more important to her than her 11-year-old son, Joseph, whom she left in Jerusalem to fend for himself while she travels to California with an actor friend. Brother Dror is the family gossip; he finds—and loses—wives and girlfriends with easy abandon. Nobody has seen Ziv, another brother, in years—he lives in Singapore with a man and refuses to return to Israel without an invitation from his father, which never arrives. Keren, the youngest sister, lives on the kibbutz with her husband, Guy Gever, a fanciful oddball and artist. In the fields, Guy chases migrating birds that eat the crops; despite his efforts, the hungry birds keep returning, playing a symbolic role in how the Solomons relate to their father.
Four of the Solomon children gather for a final visit with a dying Yakov. Do their darkest secrets and idiosyncrasies cast a shadow on disquieting aspects of Israeli society? Of course. But by concentrating on one complicated contemporary family, Ball forces us to ponder our own family relationships, some lovely, some messy—and some that simply defy explanation.
Stewart Kampel was a longtime editor at The New York TImes.