THE BLESSING AND THE CURSE<i> by Linda Bayer (Jewish Publication Society: $16.95) </i>
“B. U. Be Me. We’re one. Be free.” Ida Morgan-Weiss, the heroine of this absorbing novel, seems to take this 1960s mantra seriously, not only when her boyfriend, Rob, first chants it during college (B. U.= Brandeis University), but when Rob leaves her for another woman after years of marriage. “Rob loves me, he just loves her, too,” Ida tells her mother. Rob doesn’t want to “own anything,” Ida explains, and for him, “a wife is a possession.” What makes this novel fascinating is that Ida seems to have her life so much together despite her allegiance to Rob’s confused philosophy.
To gain some distance from Rob, Ida, a 39-year-old humanities professor, takes a job at Boston University, only to become involved with Phil, a colleague whose wife lives in California. Meanwhile, two subplots are urging Ida to make sense of her life--her desire to meet her real mother (she discovers she is a foster child) and her need to have a child of her own before it’s too late. Unfortunately, though, we never actually see Ida grappling with any of these problems. While a devout Jew, for example, she seems unconcerned that her friends (especially one who might help her raise a baby) have no interest in Judaism. Similarly, she falls in love with Rob and Phil, but never confronts them when they leave, and she talks knowledgeably to her students about how the humanities help “define the moral life,” but never defines the role morality plays in her own life. This is not to say that Ida is defeated by these problems--on the contrary, she possesses a sense of poise, equanimity and authority from page one. Her source of strength, however, comes from a personality developed outside of the events in this novel. Ida brings order to the tumult in her life through a keen attentiveness to detail and ritual. She writes methodic essays, for example, on topics which are anything but that (e.g.--"The Symbolic Use of Flowers in Romantic Verse”).