Review of “The World to Come” by Dara Horn

The story of three generations of the Ziskind family is told in alternating chapters with a unique twist: we also see them in their pre-natal and post-natal existence in Paradise. Members of a family who have died literally help to shape the characteristics of those who are yet to be born. This charming tale tinged with tragedy is more sophisticated than it might seem, and provides a captivating way to think about loved ones who are no longer among the living.

As the novel begins, Ben Ziskind, a lonely, 30-year-old divorced, skinny, legally blind genius has just stolen a Chagall painting from the Museum of Hebraic Art in New Jersey. Ben and his sister Sara, although twins, are quite different: Ben focuses on trivia – he writes questions for the quiz show American Genius. Sara is an artist and sees the world in broad patterns and colors that elude Ben. In fact, this book is all about what is seen versus what is hidden. One of the characters is even named The Hidden One (“Der Nister” in Yiddish). (This is the real-life Yiddish writer Pinkhas Kahanovitch, a friend of Chagall who hid many of his manuscripts behind Chagall’s canvasses, since writing on any subject but “socialist realism” was forbidden in Stalin’s Russia.)

Ben steals the painting because he recognizes it as belonging to his family. It was given to his grandfather Boris by Chagall himself.

Boris was orphaned at age ten by the pogroms that swept Russia from 1918-1921 killing over 150,000 Jews. Chagall and Kahanovitch were teachers at his orphanage. [In an Afterword, in which the author discusses the historical events that inform the plot, she observes that the orphanage at which Chagall and Der Nister taught was a veritable avant-garde artists’ colony. Practically all of them but Chagall would later be exterminated by Stalin.]

At Malahovka Orphanage: Chagall, 1st from right, Der Nister, 2nd row, 2nd from right

Chagall left for Europe, and freedom, but Der Nister and his family stayed in Russia. When Der Nister’s beloved daughter Hodele died, he wrote a letter to God that is a wonderful expression of his grief delivered in a veil of sarcasm:

“To the Eternal (may the name of your honored majesty be blessed forever and ever):

Forgive me for interrupting your divine and important work. I hope you will grant me the gift of your mercy and be particularly forgiving of my interrupting you at this juncture in the history of our world. It is my humble assumption that you are presently involved in extremely essential, unfathomably life-sanctifying creative endeavors that we shall all (may it be your will) be privileged to witness in the near future, speedily and in our time – for I cannot otherwise explain your current absence from the face of the earth.”

Boris grew up and had his own family, and his daughter Rosalie married Daniel. They became the parents of Ben and Sara. Rosalie and Daniel are dead as the book begins, although their stories are told in subsequent chapters. The painting and the stories of Der Nister stuffed behind it were passed down through the generations.

Rosalie wrote and illustrated Jewish folk tales, although the stories were actually adapted from Der Nister and other Yiddish artists who had been murdered by Stalin. She wanted to make sure that their stories would not be “hidden” forever. The last picture book she published before she died was called “The World to Come.” As it turns out, “The World to Come” is also the name of the mandatory lecture series in Paradise attended by those not yet born. And “the world to come” is what Rosalie and Daniel, in Paradise, identify to their grandson-to-be as “the world, in the future, as you create it.”

Chagall, Angel

So many of the choices made to create “the world to come” depend upon trust, another important theme of this narrative. It was certainly critical for Boris in Stalin’s Russia, and Daniel in Vietnam, and Ben, who tries to believe in new love. As the author suggests, “Trusting anyone is the most dangerous thing one can do, but it’s also one of the only things that make life worth living.”

Evaluation: I found this book to be lovely, engaging, thought-provoking, and hopeful in spite of the crosses the characters had to bear. The author writes with impressive craftsmanship and kept my interest up throughout. My one criticism is that the plot wasn’t neatly tied up in a bow for me at the end.

Rating: 4/5

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2006


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22 Responses to Review of “The World to Come” by Dara Horn

  1. Jenners says:

    I love the ideas of this book … the prenatal and postnatal lives sounds captivating.

  2. stacybuckeye says:

    I agree with Jenners. The idea of it is very interesting. Thanks for introducing me to it.

  3. Rita K says:

    Jill, you really caught the essence of this book. I loved it myself, but unlike you, I did not mind that the plot was not tied up in a bow. I like to imagine what the “world to come” might be. I found the book hopeful. I also learned much about the “hidden ones” and the history of Jews in Russia. I loved the use of the quotation from Der Nister’s letter. I plan to read this book again, something I rarely do. It was my favorite book from last year!

  4. Aarti says:

    What a great review! I have never heard of this book before, but I really like Russia as a setting in books. Thanks for the heads up on it.

  5. Sandy says:

    This sounds like a wonderful book…definitely much more to it than you would think by the fairy tale-ish cover. At first, the idea of hearing from the family members who have died made me wonder if I would get emotional, but it doesn’t sound like it. Very nice review!

  6. Julie P. says:

    Hmmm. I have this one on my shelves. Sounds very interesting and your review is terrific!

  7. Janel says:

    The dead and the unborn are connected? Sounds like a very interesting plot.

  8. Alyce says:

    I had this book recommended to me prior to blogging, and when I read it I had a really hard time getting through it. I almost wonder if I should read it again some day. It bothers me when everyone else seems to like a book that didn’t appeal to me. (Except for Twilight – I am perfectly happy to miss that boat.)

    • L. Pedersen says:

      Try the same author’s more recent book, All Other Nights. It’s more plot-driven and easier to get into (actually– I found it very hard to put down). It’s also less fairy tale but is great at bringing history (civil war) to life.

  9. Staci says:

    I don’t think this is something that I would read but I did enjoy reading your thoughts on this and the historical connections.

  10. Nymeth says:

    I want this! Is it silly that I was extra glad it was good because the cover is so beautiful? I always want books with great covers to be great too 😛

  11. Belle says:

    This sounds like a lovely read. And I have to echo Nymeth, because the cover really caught my eye. There’s just something a tiny bit magical about it that I find very enticing.

  12. J. Kaye says:

    Wow…it does sound like a good one. I think that book cover is amazing!

  13. bermudaonion says:

    Boy, that sounds like it has a unique, but fascinating storyline. I’m adding it to my wish list.

  14. JoAnn says:

    My daughter bought and read this a couple of years ago. It’ still in her bookcase… will have to take a look.

  15. Margot says:

    Just reading your post moved me so I imagine this is definitely a Kleenex-necessary book. I liked the cover and the other pictures you used to add to your post.

  16. Tara says:

    So glad you liked this too! I remember feeling the same about the ending. I actually emailed the author about the different ways to think about the ending and she wrote me back a very nice and detailed email.

  17. Anna says:

    Chagall was a character in Keeping Hannah Waiting by Dave Clarke, which I enjoyed. That’s where I first heard of him. This one sounds good, so I’ll keep it in mind.

  18. I’m anxious to read another book by Dara Horn. This does sound like one I would like. You make it sound irresistable to me. Thanks.

  19. Pingback: October Jewish Book Carnival | Jewish Book Council Blog

  20. Jew Wishes says:

    I have read this book, and must review it, myself. This is an excellent review, and spot on.

  21. Heidi Estrin says:

    I’ve been meaning to read this book, so thanks for the inspiration to make that happen already. And thanks for sharing it with the October 2010 Jewish Book Carnival!

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