99. Reuben Sachs: A Sketch by Amy Levy, 1888

Well. That was kind of a bizarre experience.

Reuben Sachs: A Sketch by Amy Levy is, at the time of this writing, not available through Project Gutenberg or any of my other usual sources for public domain books in ePub format (Feedbooks and Munseys, mostly). There are multiple page-scan PDFs on the Internet Archive, with the usual-quality generated ePubs derived from them. (The “usual quality” is “Eh, we ran OCR and didn’t actually look at the results. Good enough, right?”)

So I thought about skipping this one, particularly as it didn’t look interesting to me. But my completist monster snarled “Check LibriVox!” at me.

And lo, they had an audiobook of it! And listening to the opening bit, I was shocked and amazed to find the reading done by somebody actually British, and easy to listen to! (I’ve had a really bad run of Librivox recordings, alas.)

So I listened to the novel over two days last weekend. After the first half, I was primed and ready to slag the book completely as boring, pointless, plotless, with endless listings of details of clothing and other things that had little to do with anything.

Then I listened to the last half, and, well, I was wrong. Mostly.

I haven’t gone back to re-listen to the first half, and am not likely to, but part of the problem was, I admit, me. See, if you call a book “Reuben Sachs”, I rather expect it to be about, you know, Reuben Sachs. So when the titular character goes missing for chapters at a time, and isn’t particularly interesting to begin with, that makes it rough for me to get involved in the story.

The actual main character is Judith Quixano, who is in love with Reuben, but not much loved in return. (Her father is a Portuguese Jew, her mother an English Jew, hence the family name.)

The story, such as it is (it really is rather plotless), follows Judith’s hope to be together with Reuben, then how she copes when he chooses a political career over being with her. (Left unstated, but rather clear, is that if he married a “foreigner”, he’d have a much harder time of it at the polls.)

But a lot of what Levy writes about is the Jewish community and subculture in Britain, and it’s mostly unflattering, but in a trenchant way, not an anti-Semitic one, since Levy herself was of that community.

I make it sound tedious and boring. Frankly, the first half qualifies as both. Once I understood that Judith was really the main character, and that her imagined relationship with Sachs the central conflict, things got much better and more interesting. They had been set up in the first half, but had not been the obvious focus. Once they are, Levy writes personal interactions, one on one as well as in groups, rather brilliantly. The moment when Judith understands she is being spurned is heartbreaking, and her choice to enter a loveless marriage, awful as it clearly will be, makes perfect sense given her options in the culture and time. And her character is so well-drawn that you have a good sense that she’ll be able to handle life even in that situation, even when the final jolt arrives.

Is Reuben Sachs a great book? No. But it does have some great moments in it. Getting to them is a chore, but a rewarding one in the end.

Next up, Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Master of Ballentrae.

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