Recommendation: A good book that falls just short of being more than that. Both the concept and the execution are hilarious, but the ending lacks both the comedic and poignant punch that you find in the rest of the novel.
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Hope: A Tragedy is Shalom Auslander’s first novel focusing, as his memoir Foreskin’s Lament also did, on the simultaneously burdensome and humorous history of Judaism. Solomon Kugel has moved to a town that is known for nothing. Its historical void is exactly what attracts Solomon, looking to finally be free of the Jewish history that has always felt so oppressive to him. But the past isn’t so easy to evade. Almost immediately Solomon’s mother joins his wife and son in the house and her constant discussion about the horrors of WWII (which she “remembers” despite never suffering through) nearly drives Solomon mad. Until he discovers that a fully alive Anne Frank—mistakenly believed dead and told to remain so by her book’s publisher—is staying in his attic and using the vents to, well, dispose of her waste.
The story only gets darker and funnier from there, including house fires, irritable bowels, and plenty more Anne Frank. It truly is funny, but it’s not for the easily offended. And if you’re Jewish and easily offended, this will probably end up somewhere on your Most Hated Books list. Auslander really goes all out right from the start, delving into the harshest parts of Jewish history to find its biggest laughs. For my count, he comes up right more often than not, but the potential for disaster looms large when covering such dangerous ground, so if you find it going horizontal in the early chapters you might want to stop before you lose your handle on it.
Surprisingly, the funniest part of this book doesn’t come from one of the big risks Auslander takes. There is a dementedly cynical minor character that pops up a few times and had me bubbling over with laughter at each appearance. Professor Jove is Kugel’s therapist who has a wickedly unique perspective on the world and is responsible for the book’s title. Jove’s theory is that hope is the worst thing that happens to humans. By having hope, we all reach for something better, something out of our grasp, something that we are inevitably disappointed to fall short of. It is Jove who states that Hitler was the world’s biggest…optimist. I’ll let his pages explain that one to you, but trust me, it’s a doozy.
The most noticeable flaw in this book is its unfortunate finale. Auslander doesn’t quite know where to stop his tale, and this otherwise hilarious, spitting book whimpers out to an unsatisfying ending that misses its punches. It’s not a fiasco, but it just feels bland when compared with the theatrics of the story up to that point. A disappointing ending, but still a good book overall, Hope: A Tragedy will provide you with plenty comedic escape to be worthy of a library checkout.