ALL I LOVE AND KNOW, by Judith Frank. William Morrow, 422 pp., $26.95.
The considerable power of Judith Frank's second novel, "All I Love and Know," comes from two sources not always found in combination: first, the seriousness of the social issues it takes on, and second, its psychological, nearly Jamesian style, following its characters tick by tick through their emotions and thoughts. The merger is a success, providing a nuanced and profound approach to politically volatile subject matter, like an upmarket Jodi Picoult.
"All I Love and Know" opens on a flight to Israel undertaken in terrible circumstances. Daniel Rosen's twin brother, Joel, and Joel's wife, Ilana, have been killed in a suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Daniel is traveling with his handsome younger partner, Matt Greene. What these two know that neither the American nor the Israeli set of grandparents has yet learned is that the dead couple has designated Daniel and Matt as guardians of their two very small children, even though they realized it would mean moving them back to the States. What Daniel and Matt are as yet unaware of is that Israeli law does not always honor the parents' wishes in this matter -- particularly when nationalism and homophobia are in play. To make matters more thorny, Ilana's parents are Holocaust survivors.
The rotating narration gives us access to the thoughts of Matt, Daniel, and Gal, the orphaned 5-year-old girl. All three contribute to the depth and nuance of the story, but Matt wins the popularity contest hands down. His good looks are such that "when Matt breezed into a room he seemed to change the very climate -- to crisp and freshen the air there." Though he is stereotyped by Daniel's mom as a shallow partyer, Matt is a smart man and serious about left-wing politics. The interplay between his fierce anti-Zionism and Daniel's fondness for Israel -- along with many other points of view represented -- make a surprisingly non-tendentious book about this topic.
Matt is also a self-confessed "blurter," saying what's on his mind, even when it's inappropriate or politically incorrect. In the narration, he offers observations such as: "The mother was kerchiefed and red-cheeked, joggling the baby with an expression of hassled professionalism, and the father pale, blond ringlets down the side of his face, reading a small prayer book. There was something a little hot about the guy's detachment, his look of being above it all." Judith Frank writes her gay characters beautifully -- she even writes gay male sex well. Rare.
The book has two settings: besides Israel, Northhampton, Massachusetts, Daniel and Matt's home, as well as Frank's. Descriptions of "honest, lesbionic Northhampton" provide moments of comic relief throughout, enhancing the steady human warmth of this important novel. From the darkest moments to the lightest, Frank's empathy for her characters transforms front-page news into literary fiction.