Tag Archives: women’s fiction

A hauntingly beautiful, courageous, yet painful composition

“Skipping Stones,” by Penny Lauer. CreateSpace. 384 pages. $15.00 trade paper, Kindle ebook $8.99

This is a painful book: painful because it is sensitive and courageous. In dealing with a young boy’s multiple crises –  the loss of his mother, the tormenting tenuousness of his long-absent father’s overtures, and the horrifying abusiveness of Uncle Steve, in whose care Josh has been placed – Penny Lauer has not spared the reader her main character’s pain. Nor has she glanced away from the pain suffered by Steve’s wife and children. And yet there is something hauntingly beautiful about this prose composition that fully engages our sympathy.  LauerFrontCover

We meet Josh shortly after he has lost his mother, Becky, who died in a bicycle accident for which Josh feels responsible. A troubled soul, Becky had determined years back that it would be best for Josh and for her if she divorced her husband, Sam. It’s not clear at first what made their relationship such a mismatch. Readers discover that Becky suffered from severe depression, and that coping with it sometimes took all of her strength. However, she was a courageous fighter and fully devoted to Josh. In fact, the bicycle mishap stemmed from her determination to overcome her fears and frailty.

Having anticipated the need to prepare for Josh’s future without her, Becky had documented her wish that Josh become part of her sister Jess’s family in the case of her death or incapacity. Little did she know the twisted home life that Jess and her children led under Steve’s reign of terror. Pride and fear mixed to keep Jess chained to a life of virtual slavery, of constant insults, and of harsh beatings. Her children had some understanding of what was happening, but no way to help her. Mother and children, in fact, had developed a conspiracy of silence. They lived a lie.

A flashback chapter summarizes the courtship and early years of marriage between Jess and Steve, revealing the step by step process by which the naïve and overwhelmed Jess became first an appendage to Steve’s egocentric manipulations and eventually a victim, her individuality submerged under the weight of his sadistic expectations.

Penny_Lauer  

Josh walks into this domestic nightmare, unprepared and defenseless. But not altogether so. The quality of love he had received from his mother, the spirit of freedom that she had instilled in him, and her therapeutic reverence for nature that he had internalized gave Josh resilience and fortitude. Still, he is only a boy.

As Steve becomes more and more erratic and cruel, Sam becomes more and more committed to rebuilding his relationship with Josh. However, Steve’s overpowering jealousy cuts off communication between father and son.  Ultimately, Sam’s questioning of Jess about “what’s wrong” and Steve’s creation of a police state within the home (he cancels Jess’s credit cards and takes away her car keys) drive Jess closer and closer to taking a stand and tearing down the web of lies she has spun to hide the truth about how she and her children live under Steve’s tyranny. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the January 2, 2013 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly, the Naples edition for January 3, and the Palm Beach Gardens / Jupiter edition for January 17, click here Florida Weekly – Lauer 1 and here Florida Weekly – Lauer 2

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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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