Born to parents who fled the shtetl, Esther Lustig has led a seemingly conventional life—marriage, two children, a life in suburban Chicago. Now, at the age of eighty-five, her husband is deceased, her children have families of their own, and most of her friends are gone. Even in this diminished condition,
Born to parents who fled the shtetl, Esther Lustig has led a seemingly conventional life—marriage, two children, a life in suburban Chicago. Now, at the age of eighty-five, her husband is deceased, her children have families of their own, and most of her friends are gone. Even in this diminished condition, life has its moments of richness, as well as its memorable characters. But above all there are the memories. Of better days with Marty, her husband. Of unrealized obsessions with other men.
As she moves back and forth through time, Esther attempts to come to terms with the meaning of her outwardly modest life. As a young woman, she wondered about the world beyond the narrow, prescribed world she inhabited. Now, cruelly, she can’t help but wonder if she has done anything for which she will be remembered.
At once sad and amusing, unpretentious yet wonderfully ambitious, Miriam Karmel’s debut novel brings understanding and tremendous empathy to the unforgettable Esther Lustig.
“Karmel's Debut novel is a quiet contemplation of a woman's final days.”
“Deeply moving…. Karmel's subtle, psychologically acute rendering of Esther's life reveals a woman who has lived fully, if not flamboyantly; loved deeply; kept her dignity, irrepressible wit, and essential humanity. Being Esther is a spare book with cosmic implications and a huge heart.”
“Karmel’s novel of womanhood, the love and strife between mothers and daughters, marital dead zones, and the baffling metamorphosis of age is covertly complex, quietly incisive, and stunning in its emotional richness.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist
“Being Esther is impossible to put down. — Margot Livesey
At eighty-five, Esther hasn’t yet “lost her marbles.” What has she lost?
Esther believes “she is still herself – albeit a slower, achier, creakier version of the original” (p. 164). And yet, she calls her friend (p. 11) hoping that “Sonia will remember it all. She’ll vouch for Esther’s memories; she will validate Esther’s existence.” Consider how we disappear into old age.
Esther’s life is presented in a nonlinear way, jumping forward and back in time. How does this affect the reader’s understanding of Esther?
Esther admires how her friend Helen “could turn her back on tradition.” How has Esther defied the constraints of her life?
In an apology to her mother (p. 87), Esther realizes that cleaning put her mother “in command,” and made her “safe there in a way you never were in the world outside.” What has made Esther feel safe? How has she taken command of her own life?
Marty, like his watch, was “annoying but dependable.” How did Esther cope with the emptiness of her long marriage? Why does Esther continue to rely on Marty long after his death?
Esther is “content doing nothing.” How does this conflict with her daughter’s prescription for Esther’s well-being? With life in the modern world?
In the grocery store, Esther wonders if all the choices there are meant to “balance the losses? To make us forget that every day our lives become a little less full than they were the day before?” How are choices diminished late in Esther’s life?
“Oy, please,” Esther’s mother says. “What do you want from me?” Do the mothers and daughters in Being Esther know what they want from one another? What stops them from asking for it? How is Esther’s relationship with her mother reflected in the one she has with Ceely?
Esther’s memories (p. 176) are like “so many landmines lurking between the heavy cutlery and white table linens.” Do Esther’s memories comfort or disturb her?
Consider the sadness Esther feels when she realizes that her family will not want any of her things when she’s gone. What do these possessions represent for Esther? What possessions of yours would arouse a sadness similar to Esther’s?
Sophie says “My Nonna doesn’t think anyone is really happy. ‘Who’s happy?’ It’s like her mantra.” How has this philosophy protected Esther in her life? How has she challenged her own ideas about happiness?
Consider the role “independence” has played in the lives of Esther and her daughter, Ceely. How has Ceely’s independence affected Esther differently over the years?
Esther tells Marty, “If you talk to someone, they’ll talk back. Isn’t that what it’s all about?” What makes Esther so circumspect in conversation with her family?
“That’s what people do,” Esther tells Fanny Perlman. “They forget where they came from.” How is this true for Esther? Her parents? Her children?
How did Esther’s ideas about death change over the course of the story?