I’ve just started reading Charlotte Mendelson’s The Exhibitionist, which is due to be published in March 1922, and after only three pages, I’m already savouring it with the delight you feel for only a minority of the books you read.
For me, that *glee* in reading is most often captured by writers who are astute, perceptive, unflowery, clever, and *funny*, often with a tinge of wickedness. It’s for this reason that as soon as Jonathan Franzen or Rachel Cusk has a book out, I feel compelled to buy it.
The Exhibitionist is a family saga, just as Mendelson’s Orange longlisted When We Were Bad was. I’ve looked out a review I wrote (never submitted anywhere) of it back in 2008.
When We Were Bad
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 25 April 2008
Charlotte Mendelson's Orange 2008 longlisted novel centres around a Jewish family run by matriarch and rabbi Claudia Rubin. Claudia is attractive, intelligent and a social butterfly. She has ploughed successfully through every field she has embarked on - writing, teaching, broadcasting, even giving wonderful dinner parties. On the surface, it looks as if Claudia's family is the perfect happy brood. But underneath, tensions are simmering...
Charlotte Mendelson's novel is a sharp, witty exploration of a family that, like so many others, is dysfunctional under the surface. The oldest of Claudia's offspring, Leo and Frances, are ostensibly doing well in law and publishing, but their private lives are unravelling. The cossetted younger siblings Simeon and Emily are seen by Claudia as almost being too fragile for the real world despite evidence to the contrary. Simeon in particular is the epitome of a nasty, bullying, selfish spoilt brat.
We join the story as things start to go awry in public for the first time.
This is a hugely enjoyable book, light-hearted but not underweight in sparkling prose. Mendelson is a talented writer, artfully spinning lightweight family sagas without resorting to simplistic, dull, formulaic language or cliches. Her prose is tight and she has a wicked dry wit. In parts, the farcical nature of events is reminiscent of some of William Boyd's early novels like A Good Man in Africa. That ability to be droll without trying too hard - resorting to long-winded jokes or implausible characters and events - is a rare gift.
The novel also made some comments about the unfair nature of some families. The favouritism shown to Simeon and Emily was conveyed in a believable way without embittering the mood of the comedy. In one throwaway line, Claudia feels irrationally irked that her older son the lawyer Leo won't rise off the sofa (unasked) so that lazy,arrogant, dope-smoking layabout Simeon can lie down. Elsewhere, Claudia drops inquiries into the cheque she has partially written that goes missing once it becomes apparent that Simeon has stolen it.
The novel is also illuminating about the traditions of Jewish life. In that respect, it might be compared with Naomi Alderman's Disobedience(on last year's Orange longlist), but Alderman's prose is fairly ordinary and unsparkling in comparison to Mendelson's spiky wit.
Mendelson ticks all the boxes for me. I’ll be keeping an eye out for her subsequent books.