The central thrust of the publisher’s promotion of this novel is that it’s like Nicola Krauss’ The History of Love. However, though this too is a Jewish “history of love”, The Beautiful Possible is essentially a very conventional novel in terms of structure, perspective, character study and plot. It has none of the exuberant architectural mischief of Nicole Kraus’ novel. What prevents The Beautiful Possible from being the playing out of just another rather predictable love triangle is Gottlieb’s poetic prose style (I would guess Michael Ondatje has had far more influence on her than Nicole Krauss) and the rich texture of Jewish spirituality informing the text. One element of this latter feature is the employment of the rabbinic game of question and answer known as She’ela and Teshuva as a motif throughout the novel. One person asks a question of a spiritual nature; another tries to answer it. And this is what all the characters in this novel are doing, asking spiritual questions of each other.
The novel begins on a note of high drama. Gottlieb creates her first triangle, arguably the most haunting one. It’s 1938. Walter is in bed with his lover Sonia while his father in the next room feeds sheet music to the flames in the fire. In a few pages Gottlieb does a fabulous job of creating the kind of sexual intimacy that will for ever afterwards be remembered and missed. When Walter and Sonia get hungry Sonia offers to go into the kitchen to get some crackers. As she does so a murder squad enter the house. Sonia and his father are shot; Walter saves himself by hiding under the bed. The spiritual imperative of the novel is established – to keep the spirit of Sonia alive.
After spending the war years in an ashram in India, Walter arrives in New York where he becomes the study partner of Sol at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Sol is about to marry Rosalie whose father was a rabbi. Walter and Rosalie embark on an affair before her marriage to Sol. So the plot veers dangerously towards a very clichéd set-up –a love triangle featuring an almost impossibly attractive poetic male, a somewhat repressed but kind hearted husband and an independently-minded female torn between convention and rebellion.
I was enthralled for the first 200 pages. Then it went a little flat for me. Partly this was down to Gottlieb’s determination to continue writing about Walter and Rosalie’s relationship in the exuberantly romantic language of youth even when they’re middle aged and beyond. It’s as if the characters are moored in Gottlieb’s youthful romantic assessment of them. (This is perhaps ironicised (is that a word?) by a twist late in the novel.) Thus poor Sol, the steadfast cuckolded husband, the uninspired and uninspiring rabbi, is never allowed much sympathy; Walter in his fifties, is still portrayed as a kind of Jim Morrison figure and Rosalie as the impulsive wide-eyed girl who has only just discovered the alchemical powers of sex. Somehow the relationships didn’t evolve. The spiritual questions they asked each other became repetitive and sterile. Because I’ve recently read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay I kept thinking of the love triangle in that novel – as archetypes the three characters in both novels are very similar – and was constantly reminded of how brilliantly Chabon developed his love triangle and how at the end he did justice to the qualities, the rich and complex humanity of all three. I didn’t feel this with Gottlieb’s threesome. Sol was belittled in the manner youthful rebellion belittles the man in the suit. Walter and Rosalie, on the other hand, were idealised, though it should be said this is a novel that wilfully ignores the prevalence or even presence of petty emotion in our lives. The characters are always in the grip of noble emotion. For example there’s never a suggestion that Walter seduces Rosalie as a means of getting one over Sol even though Gottlieb does such a great job of dramatizing Sonia and Walter as star crossed lovers that it’s hard to believe he could replace Sonia so quickly with another soulmate. How many soulmates do we meet in our lives? Gottlieb always takes an idealised view of human motive. In another novelist’s hands there might be much more darkness and twisted motive in this novel.
The plateauing of the tension and vitality of the plot is partly redeemed very late in the novel by the yearning of the daughter, Maya, herself a rabbi, to piece together and make a kind of holy book of all the fragments of her knowledge of the family history. In a sense she takes up the She’ela and Teshuva game – she asks the questions and waits for the past to answer them. It’s Maya, the daughter, who most lucidly discloses the novel’s central theme, that “Every story contains the secret kernel of an infinite one.”
As I said Gottlieb writes very beautifully – though she can overwrite too – and this is a very impressive first novel. I think whether or not you enjoy it will depend almost entirely on your response to Gottlieb’s highly wrought poetic prose style. Basically I’d suggest you use the “look inside” feature on Amazon and read the first page. That’ll give you a pretty clear idea of how much pleasure you’ll get from reading this novel because it’s much more about the prose than the plot.