Arts & Culture

The Book of Dahlia: Good, or Just Jewish?

We’ll admit this is a totally loaded question. The Book of Dahlia, perhaps the funniest cancer story ever written, is a novel by Jewcy editor-at-large Elisa Albert. You’ve probably seen her on the site, writing about In Treatment, vegetarianism, or … Read More

By / March 31, 2008

We’ll admit this is a totally loaded question. The Book of Dahlia, perhaps the funniest cancer story ever written, is a novel by Jewcy editor-at-large Elisa Albert. You’ve probably seen her on the site, writing about In Treatment, vegetarianism, or the underexplored relationship between Martin Buber and Legally Blond.

Elisa is really, really good at understanding human nature and really, really bad at avoiding controversy. One of the short stories in her first book, How This Night Is Different, explores the age-old question “What happens if it’s Passover and you’re Jewish and you have a yeast infection?” Dahlia, meanwhile, looks at the life of a privileged half-Israeli Beverly Hills kid whose quarterlife crisis is radically compounded by terminal brain cancer. Naturally, because it’s funny and the main character is a girl, the publisher slapped a pink cover on it, but I promise boys will like it too. Me, I found it challenging and tragic and impossible to put down, but I couldn’t be more biased, so let’s see what critics who haven’t ever been to Elisa’s house for Shabbat dinner have to say.

The New Yorker calls Dahlia “one of the most likable characters in recent fiction.” The LA Times is less enthusiastic, calling the novel “a story that somehow feels mushy” but adding that it rallies as Dahlia gets sicker, ultimately coming to “a sweet and poignant close.”

And The San Francisco Chronicle is just in love:

The Book of Dahlia may sound unbearably sad, and it can be, but it's also very funny, filled with scathing criticisms and lyrical bursts of profanity. Often, the humor and sadness are so tightly entwined as to be nearly indistinguishable. Dahlia's father, for instance, insists on optimistic misinterpretations of doctors' words: "Not worst possible place, not necessarily worst possible tumor, he jotted in his notebook while the head of Neurology went on to explain that it actually was the 'worst possible' tumor."

I was expecting the Jewish press to treat Elisa as a sort of prodigal daughter, but they were just as excited about the book. At the Forward, Melanie Weiss thinks Dahlia’s character flaws—and she has many—ultimately make the novel succeed:

Our intimacy with her flaws makes us care about her, and her story, and her deeply human responses to any number of really tough scenarios. As Dahlia’s physical condition deteriorates, we are very much there, and it’s a remarkably affecting read. That appears to be Albert’s particular genius: She cultivates an emotional bond even with her heroine, not despite Dahlia’s human defects but because of them.

Sarah Weinman at Jbooks.com looks at the most complicated, least sentimental part of what's ultimately a pretty complicated and unsentimental novel:

The most fractious relationship Dahlia has, and thus the most pivotal one Albert depicts, is with her brother Danny, a prominent young Manhattan rabbi. Here is a painful portrait of a younger sister's hero worship slowly evolving into contempt as a result of her brother's lousy and cruel treatment. Other works would put a shiny bow and have Danny and Dahlia arrive at a heart-tugging reconciliation before her untimely death. Albert knows better.

Haaretz is less enchanted with Danny’s role, calling him “the one fault of Albert's otherwise fine, nuanced novel.” But like everyone else, they're bursting with praise, though they do note—somewhat chauvinistically?—that Dahlia might have been happier in Israel.