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As Close to Us as Breathing


As Close to Us as Breathing

The sleepy beach community of Woodmont, Connecticut, is a sanctuary for the Jewish community that gathers there every summer. Women and children read and rest, cook and play, sail and gossip all week, and then spend their Fridays preparing for the arrival of husbands and fathers and the start of Shabbat, the weekly Sabbath. For the three Syrkin sisters, the family cottage in Woodmont is the most important place --- it’s what their father worked so hard for and where they spent every summer of their lives. In 1948, the grown sisters and their families face an unthinkable tragedy that changes them, and the magic of Woodmont, forever. Vivie, Bec and Ada are the focus of Elizabeth Poliner’s latest novel, AS CLOSE TO US AS BREATHING, and their tale is heartwrenchingly and beautifully told, narrated by Ada’s daughter, Molly.

"AS CLOSE TO US AS BREATHING is a powerful novel, and Poliner creates and maintains tension throughout by contrasting the love of the family with the rigid cultural expectations to which they all must adhere."

In the book’s very first sentence, readers are told that in the summer of 1948, Davy Leibritsky, Molly’s little brother, is killed in an accident. Poliner slowly reveals the details of the accident and of Davy’s death, but more importantly focuses on the emotional fallout. Each member of the family deals with the tragedy in their own way, and several of them are consumed with guilt, though no one is to blame. Davy’s passing becomes a turning point, forcing each to consider their relationships and their future. The lives of the Leibritskys, like those of all families, are complicated, and it is the tangles and secrets, desires and dreams of her characters that Poliner gives readers.

Molly is an unobtrusive, yet remarkably omniscient, narrator. With the distance of years, she tells the story of her family as it swirls around the summer of 1948 and the devastating loss of Davy. As readers are brought closer and closer to the accident, they are also shown the personal lives of the three sisters, their husbands (who are also related) and the children: Molly and her brother, Howard, as well as their cousin, Nina. The novel moves across time, from the day the Syrkins signed the cottage mortgage in 1915, to 1999, as Molly prepares to move into the house she inherited from her aunt Bec. But this movement is never jarring or difficult to follow; Poliner’s writing is both firmly confident in its plotting and gentle in its transitions and pacing. 

The characters here are finely drawn (though Molly the least so). Ada’s vanity and rage are not likable but seem real, Bec’s dreams and choices bring her to the edge of the life of her family and community, and Vivie’s patience and steadiness provide the family with reliable support. The Leibritsky men are interesting as well, especially the sad and sensitive Mort and Leo Cohen, whose openness to ideas provides an objective yet creative worldview for his daughter, Nina.  

AS CLOSE TO US AS BREATHING is a powerful novel, and Poliner creates and maintains tension throughout by contrasting the love of the family with the rigid cultural expectations to which they all must adhere. There are few moments when any character is ever fully themselves as they are all constantly aware of what is expected of them as Jews and as relatives, as well as the things that are forbidden to them for the same reasons. Transgressions, they feel, result in the kind of accident that killed Davy, and their punishment is to suffer.

Despite its realism and heavy subject matter, and because of the successful and lovely way that the story is told, AS CLOSE TO US AS BREATHING is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on March 15, 2016

As Close to Us as Breathing
by Elizabeth Poliner

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Lee Boudreaux / Back Bay Books
  • ISBN-10: 0316384135
  • ISBN-13: 9780316384131