Monday, February 27, 2012

Book Review - Gentleman's Agreement

Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Z. Hobson
Originally published 1947
Kindle release by Open Road, 2011
Why? A Net Galley choice that looked familiar to me...I'd seen it reviewed on another blog and actually added it to my Amazon Wishlist. 
What Now? research, research, research...there's so much about Jewish history that I don't know...

Golden Lines
There was a rationale behind his idea, hesitant, unprovable, but there.  Just as the embryo in the womb reproduced in nine months the whole evolutionary process of the race, maybe he could reproduce in himself in a short time the whole history of persecution.

He'd been watching her face every minute, greedy for the quick approval that would show there.  This had been quick, but different.  She wanted him not to be Jewish.  She knew he was not, knew that if he were, he'd never have concealed it.  But she wanted to hear him say so right out.

This heavy strange thing in him was what you felt when you'd been insulted.  He felt insulted.  If he were really a Jew, this is what he'd feel.  He was having his first lesson.  With Kathy, he'd stumbled into his first lesson at feeling bruised and unwilling to say the placating thing, the reassuring thing.  She had reminded him that there was something important about knowing that you were not a Jew or were a Jew, no matter what your face or voice or manners or whole being.  A slow soreness had been spreading through him.  He'd be damned if he'd let her see it.   But at last he knew what it was.

In a world where only yesterday human bones powdered to ash in blazing furnaces, the barred register of a chic hotel could scarcely be called disaster.
But this maddening arrogance, this automatic decision that you were not quite equal - 

...that's the way it is up there.  New Canaan's worse - nobody can sell or rent to a Jew there.  But even Darien is - well, it's sort of a gentleman's agreement when you buy...


Well known journalist Phil Green moves to New York City with his young son Tom and elderly mother.  For his first assignment, he's asked by his editor to begin an in depth series of articles on Anti-Semitism, an idea suggested by his wealthy editor's niece, Kathy.  New to the city, Phil is in a perfect position to pull off pretending that he is Jewish as he begins to settle into his new home.  His series of articles follows that experience for 8 weeks and uncovers racism at its worst...some expected and some not so unexpected...and even heartbreaking at times.

What I Liked

**This book's content makes it hard for me to "like"...but that opinion has nothing to do with the book itself.  I think it's good for us to read things that make us uncomfortable sometimes.

Phil - what a bold fella this Phil...especially when things get tough...and they do.  It almost seems the more difficult the task becomes, the stronger Phil digs in to prove his point.  And, even when he feels as if he's coming apart, he doesn't sway from his mission.  He's realistic enough to know that his responses will affect his family for he chooses the most difficult road in order to try and stop the continued growth of Anti-Semitism in his own family.

Phil's writing - I've always liked reading about writers and the processes they go through as they decide on what to write, the angle to use, the complications, the time it takes, and the brain processes especially.

Alternating point of views - the author alternates between Kathy and Phil...and even though I didn't care for Kathy, I did feel it was incredibly effective to get her mind's workings on realizing her own prejudice, trying to deny it, defend it, accept it, make choices about how it will affect her life, and possibly even change it.  

What I Didn't Like

The complications - I'm still thinking about this novel...there's no easy fix...and writing this review was actually scary.  I was so afraid that something I said would insult someone.  And, I mean that from the bottom of my heart.  Racism is so ingrained in us that even those of us who don't wish to be prejudice and/or who speak out for marginalized groups, sometimes even find ourselves laughing at the jokes or falling back on the stereotypes when we find someone who fits them.  

The fear - hidden racism is scary.  And, it's real.  And, as Phil's Jewish friend Dave so perfectly said, "there are always consequences."

The lack of answers - I may have written about it before, but I once had a student who wrote on a quiz..."If the Jews can get over the Holocaust, then why can't blacks get over segregation?"
Of course, right now you're thinking of the typical Mississippi stereotype...front teeth missing, gun-toting, thug wearing cowboy boots and spitting tobacco.  Not so this kid.  I happened to know this student's parents AND grandparents; I taught his older brother and his younger sister, and his younger sister is a friend of my oldest daughter.  He was raised in a very nice home with money.  His grandmother especially is the epitome of the Southern lady.  This family actually attends the same church I do, and I had never heard or seen anything similar to this line of thought from any of the other members of his family.
Where the hell did this train of thought come from?
This kid really didn't see anything wrong with what he said.   And, when I questioned him about it (I did), he defended his question as an intelligent one...and denied that his thoughts were racist in any way.
He really believed that.

The questions - Growing up in the South, most of the racism I've dealt with on a daily basis is black and white....literally.  So, my knowledge of the kind of racism against Jews is limited strictly to the Holocaust.  As a fairly intelligent middle aged woman, I'm ashamed to admit that here's one more area of our country's history that I really didn't (and still don't) know much about.  I even asked a colleague of mine where the hatred of the Jews comes from.
He asked me where I'd been for the last 2000 years :/
He also said that he thought the hate was a "Christian" response to the Jews' rejection of  Jesus Christ (who was Himself a Jew).
That's very Christian, don't you think?
See what I mean by complicated.  Roll all that around in your head for a while.

Kathy - I couldn't make myself like Kathy...and I promise, I tried. The worst part is that I think I didn't like her because she fit the stereotype of wealthy divorced woman in the 40's, cigarette in hand, pretending she she's a modern woman who likes her independence while all the while looking for a husband, flitting back and forth between her home, her parents home, her cottage, here and there...and especially her "white knight" syndrome.  Kathy wanted to expose long as it didn't inconvenience or change her life in any way.  

Overall Recommendations

I finished this book with many more questions than I started with...don't read this one expecting to find a neatly knit story.
Those interested in a historical look at journalism in old New York City and grappling with the very complicated facets of Anti-Semitism after WWII will appreciate this book.

**I received an ecopy of Gentlemen's Agreement from the publisher via Net Galley.  All opinions are my own.


  1. What a thought provoking book and review.  I'm really interested in Jewish history so I think this is a book for me.

  2. In my own community, I sometimes sense that the racism between black and white is much stronger than that between Jew and Christian, mainly because of the color barrier. Nevertheless, this book sounds so intriguing! And  you're right-it's SO important that we read books outside of our comfort zone. 

  3. I saw the movie years ago, and remember thinking it was very well done.

  4. I hadn't heard of this book, but I can totally get what you are saying about not wanting to offend anyone with your review, and being frustrated by the racism. I can imagine that I would be pretty upset by some of the things that happen in this book as well. Thanks for sharing your honest and unflinching reactions with us on this book. It sounds like it's an important read.

  5. I really like the title of this book and I do like the fact that it gives you something to think about - even though it is in a difficult way. I agree with zibilee, it does sound like an important read.