In a basement shop in Boro Park, Brooklyn, Sima Goldner sells underwear to the neighborhood's Jewish women. Lovely and lacy, modest and plain, no matter what they choose, Sima fits them perfectly and makes them feel beautiful. But she’s sad, despite the warmth she radiates to her customers: her marriage makes her feel lonely, and she still mourns for the children she couldn't have. Things begin to change just a bit for Sima, though, when a young, gorgeous and friendly Israeli woman comes into her shop.
In SIMA'S UNDERGARMENTS FOR WOMEN, Ilana Stanger-Ross’s debut novel, the friendship between Sima and Timna is the catalyst for Sima's evaluation of her life and examination of the past 40 years of marriage.
Sima hires Timna as her assistant seamstress, knowing that her stay in New York is temporary. Timna is just biding time, waiting for her boyfriend Alon to get out of the army back in Israel. She brightens the shop and makes Sima happy. But Sima quickly gets very emotionally attached to Timna, worrying about her and talking about her constantly. When Timna and Alon break up, and a new young man comes into the picture, Sima is upset. And when she suspects that Timna is pregnant, she intervenes in a way that may do irreversible damage to their relationship.
Stanger-Ross moves between the present (Sima's time with Timna, her husband Lev and her friend Connie) and the past (the early years of her marriage and back to the event she has kept secret since she was 16). The story unfolds nicely, and Sima's present state of sorrow and anger is made understandable as we follow her, as a young woman, undergoing fertility tests alone, while her friends have babies. In her 60s now, the stubborn Sima must finally face the events and realities that shaped her, come to terms with her feelings for her husband, make peace with the life she has lived and find the inner strength to change the things that burden her. Both Sima and Lev start thinking of Timna as the daughter they never had, but the threat of Timna's leaving actually offers them an opportunity to heal the wounds that have hurt them for nearly four decades.
Stanger-Ross is best when capturing the simple moments: the idle talk of the shop's customers, the keen observations Sima makes, the easy way Timna moves through time and space, the closeness of the Orthodox community. Sima exudes tension, and the author captures well the pull between her kind-heartedness and her fear, anger and remorse. Her point of view is the only one here, so the motivations of other characters are often shrouded --- especially when colored by Sima's emotions --- but the book still feels well-rounded.
This is a quiet novel. The drama is subtle yet emotional, and Stanger-Ross is never heavy-handed. It lags a bit towards the middle, but the descriptions and characterizations are usually spot-on and nicely rendered. There are some very well-written passages here, and the story feels real. As an exploration of marriage, friendship, childlessness and longing, SIMA'S UNDERGARMENTS FOR WOMEN is powerful.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 23, 2011
Sima's Undergarments for Women