Sisterhood, Sizes, and Secrets

This review appears in the March 2011 issues of the Jewish Federation of Collier County’s Federation Star and in L’Chayim, published by the Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties (Florida)

Sima’s Undergarments for Women, by Ilana Stanger-Ross. Penguin.   336 pages. $15 paperback.

We all know the old saying about how those who can’t do something end up teaching it. This bit of folk wisdom applies to Sima Goldner, a woman who can neither enjoy her own body nor forgive its inadequacies. Nonetheless, Sima can run a successful garment shop in the basement of her home, offering a lingerie specialty along with enthusiastic advice for the women who shop there. She helps them accept and enjoy their own bodies, even though she has almost abandoned our own.

Readers learn that the tragedy of Sima’s life is her barrenness. Unable to have children, Sima has never been able to fully share and release her grief – even with her husband, Lev. This buried wound has deadened her marriage and her bodily self. Her loss has been sublimated into her art as a nurturing confidante whose tiny shop is a magical, sacred place where women can receive a perfect fit and share their secrets. Ironically, Sima’s real three-decade business is dealing in intimacies, not merely in intimate apparel. 

A non-observant but Jewishly knowledgeable outsider in an Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood, Sima has somehow made herself necessary – central, in fact – to the lives of the women who arrive for one or another kind of uplift. But something is always missing for Sima.

The hope for fulfillment comes in the beautiful form of a young Israeli woman who takes a job in Sima’s shop. Timna is the seamstress that Sima needs and also the exemplar of a woman comfortable in her own skin. Sima finds in Timna a second chance. Sima knows that the impulse is irrational, but can’t she sort of adopt Timna as her own daughter? Give her love and advice? Redeem herself in a relationship that has already changed her inner world, allowing her to meet each new day with eagerness and excitement?

Sima at once idealizes and worries about Timna. She is frustrated that Timna’s personal revelations are sketchy. With Stanger-Ross’s readers, Sima learns that Timna doesn’t get along well with her mother. The young woman breaks off her long-time relationship with her boyfriend, to Sima’s dismay. With Sima’s encouragement, Timna is makes new friends and ventures into new experiences, but Sima does not trust Timna’s choices. 

Though seemingly open and outgoing, in her own way Timna is as guarded as Sima. Because readers are never permitted to enter Timna’s mind, they can only guess, as does Sima, about Timna’s motives, her character, and her secrets.

The relationship between the older and younger woman evolves through many curious twists and turns, ups and downs. On more than one occasion, Sima spies on Timna, shadowing Timna’s journey home and elsewhere, taking us along into the wider world of Jewish Brooklyn and even into Manhattan.

In chapters titled with the names of nine months, from August through April, Stanger-Ross projects a metaphor of gestation, with a Passover seder signaling a remarkable harvest of new beginnings.

Ms. Stanger-Ross has produced an exceptionally rich first novel. Wise in its insights into relationships, the borderlines between privacy and sharing, and the possible outcomes of second chances, Sima’s Undergarments for Women provides comedy and pathos in equal parts. The splendid, pitch-perfect dialogue and evocative imagery rank high among the book’s many pleasures. The microcosm of the lingerie shop is in itself a stroke of genius, and the author has fully realized its potential.

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Filed under Authors and Books, Jewish Themes

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