Judith Rossner’s new novel charts the ongoing war of wills between a single mother and her adolescent daughter. Mother Caroline is an accomplished TV cooking-show hostess whose fund of mouthwatering Italian recipes is exceeded only by her seemingly inexhaustible supply of good jokes, kindness, and patience. Daughter Olivia is a sullen, spoiled, moody, willful, anti-Semitic, possibly bulimic, money-grubbing, manipulative bitch. Mom, by the way, is our narrator.
Evenhandedness may not be Judith Rossner’s strong suit, but fortunately, Olivia (Or, The Weight of the Past) has other virtues, not the least of which is the author’s shrewdness in transplanting a parental plaint as old as time — ”Everything would be fine if my kid would just do as I say” — to the minefield of contemporary New York. The story so far: Caroline, the teenage daughter of Columbia professors, flees New York in the early 1970s (presumably around the same time that the protagonist of Rossner’s seminal scarefest Looking for Mr. Goodbar is meeting her fate) for the safer climes of a cooking job — her first love — in Italy. There she meets and marries Angelo, a double-standard-bearing macho man whose philandering and cruelty place him in the Lousy Husband Hall of Fame. Shell-shocked, Caroline moves back home, leaving her 10-year-old daughter behind. Fast-forward to the late 1980s, when Olivia, nearly 14, arrives in New York, a stranger to her mother and — as a half-Catholic, half-Jewish, half-Italian, half-American teen — to herself.
Rossner imbues the early scenes of mother and daughter together with a tension that’s unnerving in the manner of demonic-possession horror films. Olivia seems sweet at times but why does she look at other children with such hatred? Olivia seems barely more than a little girl so where could she be sneaking off to? And what to make of all these sudden tantrums?
As the story unfolded, I half expected one of the carving knives from Caroline’s splendid kitchen to disappear, and a severed hand to turn up in the farsumagru (a stuffed-meat dish that the author renders with as much vivid specificity as any of her characters). But Rossner, it turns out, is just having some fun with a delicious theme: a mother’s view of her own postpubescent child as an inscrutable, terrifying alien. The fact that, at times, Olivia and her mother literally don’t speak the same language should gladden the heart of any parent who has ever been on the losing side of a fight with a teenager.
Olivia spends too much, wants too much, eats too much, except when she’s eating too little, and doesn’t worry about anyone but herself, except when it comes to using birth control, at which point she doesn’t worry enough. Here, I began to rebel against the lopsidedness of this tale, and against Caroline’s undiminished forbearance in the face of endless petulance and hostility. Anyone reading the book hoping that Olivia will get as good as she gives will be disappointed; she needs it, and — to make Caroline something other than a saint — so does the novel.
What doesn’t disappoint is Rossner’s eye and ear for the anthropology of Upper West Side Jewish Manhattan, a world that she renders as a close cousin to Woody Allen’s New York but also makes as cloistered and specific in its mores as Edith Wharton’s. Rossner also has some interesting, wry points to make about Jewish faith, skepticism, self-hatred, and rapprochement; and although her food-as-metaphor approach (Caroline takes out her frustrations in the kitchen) is less than meets the palate, Olivia is steeped in enough culinary detail to send most readers running to the kitchen. If there’s a surprise in this book, it’s that a writer so attuned to the complexity of contemporary relations has contrived a tale with such a simple moral: Listen to your mother. I enjoyed getting there, but in the end, I was still hungry. B