THE DINNER PARTY, by Brenda Janowitz. St. Martin’s Griffin, 288 pp., $15.99 paper.
Sylvia Gold, an upwardly mobile doctor’s wife in Greenwich, Connecticut, is in a tizzy. Her overachiever med student daughter Becca finally has a boyfriend — and he’s a Rothschild. Of the Rothschilds, the richest and most powerful Jewish family on earth. And he and his parents are coming for dinner. Not just any dinner, but Passover seder.
Quick, she has to redecorate the entire house, hire a chef, buy new table linens and plan the seating arrangements. This last chore is doubly complicated because her other daughter, Sarah, is dating an Italian auto mechanic, and he’s bringing his mother, a completely unpresentable person prone to hysterics. But Sylvia doesn’t know the worst of it yet: the mother has arranged a pre-dinner video chat with her husband . . . from his cellblock in jail.
Few writers could have more fun with this premise than Muttontown author Brenda Janowitz, whose satirical rendition of the aspirations, problems and prejudices of a certain class of American Jews is hilariously precise. She’s got Passover nailed: “ . . . it can go one of two ways. It can be a long and somewhat depressing service. (Slavery. Ten plagues brought upon the land. The slaying of all the firstborn children.) Or, it can, in the right hands, be a joyous family celebration. (Four cups of wine. A children’s song about Moses floating in a basket. A sandwich made out of apples, walnuts, red wine and cinnamon.)”
Historically, the Golds have been in the second group, but this year their seder veers into uncharted territory.
One of the running jokes revolves around chef Michael’s upscale substitutions for the family recipes the Golds and their guests are expecting. No beloved standbys this year. For chopped liver, they get foie gras. For latkes there is a “deconstructed potato pancake,” which daughter Sarah is forced to spit into her embroidered napkin. The only thing anyone recognizes is the wine, and they embrace it fervently.
An unsuccessful menu turns out to be the least of Sylvia problems. Becca’s beau, Henry Rothschild, is far from the prize son-in-law of her dreams. Henry “hadn’t gotten into any of the colleges his father had hand picked for him. His grades from his third-tier Manhattan prep school were atrocious, and his SAT scores were even worse. His father had been counting on Henry’s college application essay (which he had paid good money for) and his own connections to get Henry into Princeton, his alma mater. What did they think those enormous endowments were for, anyway? Dartmouth rejected him mere hours after receipt of the application, and Brown didn’t even have the grace to send a rejection.”
One daughter with an auto mechanic, the other with a spoiled dope, and then, in the middle of dinner, the girls’ brother Gideon arrives home unexpectedly from Sri Lanka with a new fiancee on his arm. She is a black woman named Malika. “I think I need to lie down for a minute,” says Sylvia after introductions are made, and slips out of the room.
A few days later, the mailman greets Sylvia with a friendly “How are the kids?”
She pauses. Her “shining star” has returned to Sri Lanka, Becca is having a breakdown and Sarah and she aren’t speaking.
“Kids are doing great, Don,” she says. “Thank you for asking!”
This exchange could be straight out of a humorous self-help book I remember from my childhood, “How to Be a Jewish Mother.”
Having begun in the spring at Passover, Janowitz winds up her tale in the fall with Rosh Hashanah. But while the seder gets 42 little chapters, the reassembly of the party for the Jewish New Year gets only two. Why so fast? We were just getting comfortable. Despite the rushed resolution, this is a party you won’t want to miss.
Brenda Janowitz reads from “The Dinner Party” on Tuesday, April 12, at 7 p.m. Book Revue, 313 New York Ave., Huntington; 631-271-1442, bookrevue.com