At first glance Isabel Rose's first novel, THE J.A.P. CHRONICLES, is a light and fluffy summer read. And, on closer inspection, it pretty much still is.
The story of several Jewish women, all from rich or upper middle class families, who spent summers together at an exclusive camp, Rose's book also has a dark undercurrent.
Ali Cohen is a successful filmmaker, but her sisters seem only to want her to settle down and conform to the image of the Jewish American Princess --- privileged, charitable, well-dressed and well-married. Ali is pregnant by her Catholic boyfriend who she refuses to marry and has yet to tell anyone about the baby. She prides herself on being a nonconformist, definitely not a JAP, and never would have dreamt of returning to Willow Lake Camp for the reunion if the camp had not hired her to produce a film on its history and traditions.
Ali is hesitant to return to the place where she was bullied, ostracized and molested by the other girls, especially the powerful, popular Wendy Levin. Although the small film about the camp would do nothing for her career, she returns with her sisters to the camp. While there she decides to produce her own film about the camp experience as she remembers it and decides to interview all the girls who tormented her and see where their lives have taken them in the past 10 years. She asks them to speak about the defining moments in their lives.
Readers soon learn the story of six women as children, as teenagers, and as adults. Most of their lives reinforce negative stereotypes of Jewish women --- vapid, money hungry, shrill. But they have suffered, mostly from sexual abuse, and also from identity issues, drug abuse, various failures and mediocrities.
Ali's original intention may have been to expose her tormentors, revel in their miseries and get a bit of revenge, but she becomes sympathetic as she learns about their lives and even befriends a few of them. This is a story with a lot of happy endings.
THE J.A.P. CHRONICLES is uncomfortable for several reasons. First, the portrayal of Jewish women is less than positive, although it can, of course, be argued that she is describing these characters only and not making sweeping statements or generalizations. Second, the subtext of the novel --- of abuse and retribution, trauma and its consequences --- is not fully explored.
It feels as if Rose is saying that these women were bullies as campers because they were abused and bullied themselves. And, while in a nutshell that is true, she misses the opportunity to explore the characters in depth or say anything really meaningful about abuse and childhood crises. By far the most disturbing character is Wendy, whose horrible actions seem to be explained by the fact that she is a closeted lesbian and thus frustrated and damaged (even as a teenager).
Rose's novelistic debut is not completely unsuccessful; it has charming moments and is often witty. But more often than not, it is catty and deals with complicated and sad issues with flippancy and a light touch. Perhaps, then, it is a good summer read after all.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 22, 2011
The J.A.P. Chronicles