I love it when I have an unexpectedly delightful reading experience like When we Were Bad. This unobtrusive little novel about a family of English Jews took me completely by surprise. Things start with a bang when the Rubins’ eldest son Leo runs away with another woman just one minute before his wedding. Our first impression of Leo’s family, then, is seen through their reactions to this scandalous event.
Leo’s mother Claudia is a well-known rabbi, one of the first women in her field and highly respected by everyone. She’s worked hard all her life, but she’s good at what she does, and knows it. Claudia is also intensely committed to maintaining the Rubins’ image as the family that has it all. This is all the more important since her book is about to be published. When Leo runs off, her greatest concern is not for him or his relationship, but on keeping up appearances as a family.
Claudia’s husband Norman has supported her career all these years, keeping his own ambitions largely to himself. Daughter Frances is married with an infant and two older stepchildren. Two younger adult children, Simeon and Emily, are still trying to establish their independence. All are intensely loyal to one another, and especially to Claudia. She’s formidable, and such a strong force in their lives that not one of them will make a move without considering the impact on her. But this also causes a lot of sneaking around. Norman, for example, is working on a book of his own but can’t find the right time to tell Claudia. Frances feels trapped by marriage and parenthood, but feels completely alone and unable to ask her family for support. And even Claudia, so cool and collected on the outside, has her own secret problems to deal with.
So much family drama makes When we Were Bad sound like an intense read, but it’s served with a generous helping of humor. Just as I was getting all teary over developments in one character’s life, something else would happen to make me laugh. Each of the characters are tremendously flawed, and yet completely likeable. On the one hand, I felt I should despise Claudia for controlling everything around her and stifling others. But I loved her for what she had achieved, and for her fierce devotion to her family. As each character’s story line moved towards its conclusion, I felt both happy and sad about this family that I’d come to know so well. We went through a lot together over 321 pages, and I won’t soon forget it.