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Learning What's Sacred In Screwball 'Holy Lands'

Pithy, loaded letters and emails aimed at their vulnerable targets fly more like missiles than missives in Amanda Sthers' lively epistolary novel about a combative, estranged family scattered between Israel, France, New York, and Los Angeles. At the beginning of Holy Lands, it seems as if nothing is sacrosanct to this pugnacious foursome. During the course of this short novel, that changes.

Sthers is a prolific French novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. Holy Lands, her tenth novel, which she has translated herself, and also adapted into an English-language film currently in post-production, was originally published in 2010 as Les Terres Saintes.

Set in 2009, Sthers' book has the timing, wit, and warmth of a screwball screenplay that isn't allowed to idle for more than a beat. At the center of all the hubbub is Harry Rosenmerck, a cranky retired New York cardiologist who has ditched his former life to raise pigs in Israel — yes, pigs. It's an enterprise that manages to unite Jews, Muslims, and Christians in their outrage. Not only does Harry lack tact and sensitivity; he also lacks internet and has eschewed both landline and cellphone. Thus the snail mail.

His ex-wife, a French Catholic named Monique Duchène who converted to Judaism to marry him, is also aghast. So is Moshe Cattan, a young rabbi in Nazareth with whom Harry strikes up a contentious correspondence. The rabbi writes, "Either you take me for an idiot, or you are one. It could be both and you aren't aware of it." Harry parries, "When you make your life about religion, what do you know about life?"

Sthers captures her characters' distinct voices and dueling positions with practiced concision and obvious relish. "Dear ex-husband who nevertheless remains the father of my children," Monique writes. "I'll be brief and to the point. You are a hopeless old schmuck." She goes on to excoriate Harry for cutting off all communication with their son David, a successful playwright, after he announced his engagement to a man. Harry's response: "You call that brief? Your letter is two pages long and you drive me nuts."

Harry's least fractious relationship is with his daughter, Annabelle, who is crushed after the end of an eight-year relationship with a married professor. She squabbles with her mother, rejecting her theory that she's looking for a father figure, then turns to her absent dad. "Dear Daddy," she writes. "I wish there were doctors for heartache." Harry advises her to "Learn to love the ones that love you." Annabelle decides to visit him in Israel, which turns out be life-changing.

Meanwhile, David continues to send letters to his father, who's as unresponsive as the Wailing Wall. "You're a piece of a puzzle on the wrong continent," David writes, adding that he wouldn't call even if he could, because "Silence hurts less on paper." He asks his father personal questions about his love life, "mostly so you'll ask them of yourself." He also produces a play about his father called Kosher Pig, which gets slaughtered by New York critics. When his sister asks if he's happy, he responds, "I'm a writer, so that would be counterproductive."

Sthers' book has the timing, wit, and warmth of a screwball screenplay that isn't allowed to idle for more than a beat.

Harry's exchanges with the rabbi provide the novel's philosophical meat, not all of it kosher. In addition to dietary restrictions, they discuss barbarity, Hitler, Palestine, and the rabbi's son's upcoming Israeli military service. Harry derides the horror tourism of "Memorial Tours," which he cynically dubs Auschtrips and Shoadventures. "Frankly, Mr. Rabbi," he writes, "instead of spending your days trying to make me feel guilty over a few strips of bacon, you should put an end to these antics." It's only in his next letter that he reveals that he was conceived at Birkenau, though born fatherless in Paris three months after the liberation.

The astute rabbi, as deft as a good therapist, gradually opens up his contrary correspondent to his feelings. Harry writes, "I've never had a friend I agreed with so little. I think it's great. You should find yourself a Hamas terrorist pen pal." Then he adds, "I joke when I get emotional."

Holy Lands does get emotional. The wisecracks and barbs give way to sentiment — along with its soppy twin, sentimentality — as these characters break down the distances between them with heartfelt words. Sthers has a tendency to lay it on thick. "Dear Lost Youth" may be a touching way to address your ex-wife, but a 9/11 reference to "the towers that kept falling in my heart" lands with a particularly loud thud.

Are there miracles in Holy Lands? Well, maybe not. But Sthers' human-all-too-human characters do learn what's sacred.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.