The 10 interrelated stories that make up Ehud Havazelet's Like Never Before revolve around one big, if not invariably happy, family. The author introduces us to the Birnbaum clan--Max and Ruth, and their children, David and Rachel--as well as an assortment of the people they love and hate and date and marry and divorce. Yet the central focus in this sprawl of relationships is that between father and son. Theirs is also the most troubled connection. Max is an immigrant, a true if sometimes desperate believer, while David, even as a youth, is 'aggrieved, put upon, a boy who carries anger like a stone in his pocket to caress'. Growing up in Queens in the 1960s, the rapidly assimilating David rebels against the heritage Max has transported so carefully from the Old World. Yet David's defiance brings him little joy. David, Rachel says, 'was a boy constantly on the edge, of laughter, of panic, of some unaccountable act of friendship or some meanness that would leave you stunned.'
David is unsparingly drawn and quite miraculously lovable. However, all of the central figures are just as deeply realized--and Havazelet's frequently entertaining, frequently agonizing skill at presenting each as an alarming composite of beauty and ugliness gives this intensely realistic work what Annie Dillard once called a 'broad and sanctifying vision.' Near the end of her life, Ruth Birnbaum muses unhappily that despite everyone's good intentions '... love hurts more than it heals.' Havazelet's gift is to let us feel both how right and how wrong she is.