The press materials for Stephanie Feldman’s The Angel Of Losses describe it as an “inventive, lushly imagined debut novel that explores the intersections of family secrets, Jewish myths, the legacy of war and history, and the bonds between sisters.” This might suggest a story along the lines of Dara Horn by way of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a story about modern struggles with faith and family interspersed with Jewish folk tales that comment meaningfully on the lives of the present-day characters as well as providing an intergenerational counterpoint.
Any such expectations about The Angel Of Losses will go unrewarded. It has an interesting premise almost ruined by its lack of fundamental storytelling cues—and not in the good sense, where formal experimentation rewires the narrative in an unusual way. This book simply doesn’t rise to the level of convention.
The story revolves around Marjorie and her sister, Holly, whose marriage to an orthodox Jew has put a strain on the sisters’ relationship. The husband is abrasive and manipulative, and Marjorie doesn’t sympathize much with his religious zealotry. Marjorie throws herself into her work as a Ph.D. candidate studying literature and Jewish folklore, and the emotional content of her work is a constant reminder of the mysterious sect into which her beloved sister has married.
As Holly’s first pregnancy approaches full term, Marjorie returns to the family fold hoping to mend fences. But she succeeds only in reopening old wounds. Then she finds a notebook where her late grandfather wrote down some of the stories he had told the sisters as children. Grandpa Eli’s tales served as the inspiration for Marjorie’s study of Jewish folklore, and are also a strong point of bonding between the siblings.
Naturally Marjorie looks into the origins of these tales. (The folk stories are provided in their entirety within the text.) In them she finds details about her grandfather’s past that complicate everything she knows about her family and cast a new light on her own cultural identity. This is a pretty great premise for a novel, but the book’s execution fails on almost every level: The pacing is stilted and amateurish. The narrative feels like a never-ending stream of exposition. There’s a nasty habit of bookending single lines of dialogue with long, distracting passages about the speaker’s thoughts. And the tone of the present-day story is excruciatingly dull, while that of the folk stories is breathless to the point of banality.
First novels are not always, not even usually, an infallible indication of a writer’s true talents. There are passages here with interesting turns of phrase, and some of the descriptions are genuinely evocative. But let’s hope Feldman considers tone and narrative structure more carefully for her second book.