Book Review: Come Back for Me by Sharon Hart-Green (New Jewish Press 2017), pp. 296
Reviewed by Rebecca Klempner
Come Back for Me, by Canadian academician and writer Sharon Hart-Green, tells the story of two Jews who experience the unique events of the last century. Despite its focus on the past, the book contains much to attract and engage the hearts and minds of 21th century readers.
The novel’s first protagonist, Suzy Kohn, is a teenager coping with the aftermath of Uncle Charles’s sudden death. This plays out against the backdrop of social upheaval in the 1960s. We follow Suzy as she navigates romantic relationships, struggles to offer chessed to Charles’s widow, Bella, and considers her place in a world that offers both threat and promise.
Hart-Green’s other main character is Holocaust survivor Artur Mandelkorn. Artur makes it out of Europe with his life, but with the fate of his sister and brother unknown, he struggles to start over in Israel.
These two characters are troubled, yet we can see ourselves and those we love in them, and we want to know what happens next. As each chapter passes, we piece together how Suzy and Artur are connected and eagerly await the moment when the two narratives will converge.
Unfortunately, when we finally reach Suzy and Artur’s meeting, there’s a lack of drama. Additionally, Artur’s perspective disappears in the final chapters. This disappointed me, as I wanted to know his reaction to the news he finally receives of his brother and more closely observe his courtship of his second wife, too.
Nonetheless, Come Back for Me touched me deeply. While many stories of the Shoah focus on loss, this book contextualizes loss and makes meaning of it. Human tragedy remains tragic, yet Hart-Green depicts beautifully how many survivors discover joy within ruin itself and rebuild their lives.
I also particularly enjoyed Hart-Green’s depictions of romantic relationships in the novel. For example, Artur reflects upon his marriage: “I recognized a harsh fact about myself—that I had a selfish desire for Fanny to be someone who would make everything fine for me.” After this insight, Artur exerts himself to better meet Fanny’s needs. The promotion of marriage – not merely as an end, but as an opportunity to transforms oneself into a giving person – is rare in most contemporary novels.
Suzy’s response to an overly assertive boyfriend is similarly clear-headed and big-hearted. She rejects his advances not out of shame, but out of loyalty to herself and to her values. With constant reminders in the news and in literature about what can go wrong between men and women, it’s refreshing to see these depictions of what can go right.
While not a frum book, per se – the characters are not, generally speaking, halachically observant, and readers should note that the novel contains a few brief references to romantic entanglements (which are essential to the plot) – the book lacks the mutiny against Torah values so often present in mainstream Jewish fiction. Jewish tradition is an anchor for many of the characters, and Jews of different varieties interact without serious conflict.
I’m expecting that Come Back for Me will be appreciated by many readers, Jewish and non-Jewish, secular and observant.