'When we were bad' by Charlotte Mendelson has been a most entertaining, if infuriating, listen. It tells the story of the Rubin family: Claudia the matriarch, a much admired rabbi, Norman her devoted husband, who has been secretly writing a book that will potentially be more successful than his wife's upcoming publication, and their four adult offspring, Leo, Frances, Simeon and Emily, who can't seem to disentangle themselves from their mothers' apron strings.
The book opens with Leo's wedding, from which he absconds with his lover, leaving not just the bride in the lurch but his mother in a profound state of flustered embarrassment. It is quite a momentous moment for Leo as everything in his life up to this point appears to have been orchestrated and controlled by his mother. Things nearly fall apart for him and his lady love as she challenges his loyalty to his family by pushing him for a show of commitment. Frances' life meanwhile is a sham of motherhood, not coping with her own new offspring and failing utterly to establish a rapport with her husband's two daughters, and nobody seems to notice until it is all too late. Simeon sits smoking dope in the background, clinging desperately to his teenage rebellion because he can't be bothered to go out into the real world. Emily just flaps around insisting everyone has to rally round and support their mother. While working all the hours god sends, to provide for the needs of her family, Claudia is so wrapped up with her own concerns and achievements that she does not realise what is happening to her family. Though they all live this slightly claustrophobic life, with all four of the children still in their parental home, and there is lots of heartfelt concern for each other, none of them seem able to talk about anything important. They are all keeping secrets from each other and pretending like nothing is going on. None of them are very likeable, being so wrapped up in themselves, but that is part of the appeal of the book. You get to laugh and think smugly to yourself that at least your family is not as dysfunctional as this one. As the plot rushes us madly towards all important the family passover seder and the publication of both Norman and Claudia's books you can see that the shit is about to hit the fan.
It is altogether a beautifully played out family saga, taking us from one person's drama to another, tying them all neatly together with the interrelationships between the four siblings and their parents. Sometimes it takes a crisis to stir things up and force the family to confront their stifled existence and face up to what they really want from life. A good lesson for all of us maybe.