“Strangers and Cousins” by Leah Hager Cohen (Riverhead) 319 pages, $27
Leah Hager Cohen's new novel about a quirky family planning a wedding in a tumbledown house contains all the stale promise of an arthritic rom-com.
But it's an absolute delight. And if anything about “Strangers and Cousins” sounds tepid or old-fashioned, know that Cohen has infused this story with the most pressing concerns of our era. The result is a perfect summer novel: funny and tender but also provocative and wise.
The book is divided into five episodes, one for each day of the week culminating with the wedding of 22-year-old Clem. She's the eldest of four children of Bennie and Walter Blumenthal, a white family that has lived for generations in the small town of Rundle Junction. That Clem is marrying a black woman doesn't bother any of these good liberals. They're more concerned about the format of the ceremony itself: A student of experimental theater, Clem wants a wedding that deconstructs matrimony. Her ever-patient parents are quietly skeptical, but openly supportive.
“Everything is vaudeville in this house,” Cohen writes. The family, never orderly even under normal circumstances, has become a whirling dervish of preparation for the upcoming ceremony in their backyard.
None of us is perfectly in sync, which is the source of so much of our tragedy and comedy. That becomes clear with the early arrival of the first wedding guest, ancient Great Aunt Glad, who once lived in this house decades ago. Though somewhat confused about the current hubbub unfolding all around her, Aunt Glad has a clear memory of another ceremony 87 years earlier. That celebration ended in a disaster that's still etched on her body and casts a long shadow over Rundle Junction.
This historical element never dominates the novel, but Cohen connects it to the modern-day story in such a way as to give “Strangers and Cousins” surprising weight. “There's certainly something in the air – but is it festivity?” Cohen asks with her typically arch voice. In the background of the happy preparation for Clem's wedding, a controversy is rumbling in town. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have begun buying up property to establish a new Haredi community. Some Rundle Junction residents, seeing how other towns have been affected by the Haredim, hope to block the newcomers by raising environmental concerns about an imperiled wetland.
Others plan to sell their homes before property values start dropping. When swastikas show up on a construction trailer, the community has a stark choice to make.
What an uncomfortable and yet illuminating conundrum Cohen has designed for these right-thinking folks. It's thrilling to send a righteous tweet, but how would any of us behave if our actions cost us something substantial?
As the Blumenthals get ready to celebrate their daughter's biracial gay wedding, what other expressions of difference are they willing to embrace? In the lives of these thoughtful people, Cohen locates the painful inflection point of their morality.
Cohen takes comedy seriously. That shows in the way “Strangers and Cousins” floats on the waters of a society in flux, an America still trying to figure out who we really are. Cohen's ability to acknowledge the agony of that strife in the context of a modern, loving family makes this one of the most hopeful and insightful novels I've read in years.
Ron Charles writes about books for the Washington Post.