A Curable Romantic: Serious Thud Factor, But Worth the Read

Those who know me well know that I’m the type to judge a book by its covers (front and back). And those who know me really well know that I judge a novel by its “thud” factor – the noise a book makes when it’s dropped on a table. Soft thud? The author probably hasn’t spent enough time to really develop either the characters or the plot line. Loud thud*? I’m usually inclined to believe that either the story is too complicated to tell or the author isn’t skilled enough to tell a good story well. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule: The Catcher in the Rye – brilliantly slim. Gone with the Wind – arguably worth the thud.
I’m not saying that my pre-judgment system is always spot on. I am willing to admit that I was completely wrong with my first assessment of A Curable Romantic (Algonquin Books; September 2010; Hardback; $25.95). Friends will attest to the fact that I spent the first week reading the book and telling them that novels shouldn’t be 600+ pages long. And I’ll ‘fess up to the fact that I was beyond skeptical that Freud, the Esperanto movement and the Holocaust were all threads that could successfully be woven into a love story. Turns out they can and do. And that A Curable Romantic is well worth the thud.
Joseph Skibell’s third novel tells the story of Dr. Jakob Sammelsohn, a lovelorn optimist (sometimes pathetically so), as he wanders through the early 1900s. By the age of 12, Sammelsohn has been married twice, once divorced, once widowed and has already fled his tiny village and his slightly tyrannical, religious father. We meet Dr. Sammelsohn in Vienna in the 1890’s, at the same time that he meets Dr. Sigmund Freud and the good doctor’s patient Emma Eckstein (one of Freud’s most famous patients and quickly the object of Sammelsohn’s desire). It doesn’t take long to figure out that Sammelsohn’s crush is ill-advised – Emma, we soon find out, is possessed by a dybbuk. And it’s not just any dybbuk – it’s the spirit of Sammelsohn’s second wife, Ita. Who insists on calling him by his given name of “Yankl.”
Ita chases Yankl through each third of his story: “A Curable Romantic; or, My Life in Dr. Freud’s Vienna” “Milojn Da Jesoj; or, My Life in the Esperanto in the Esperanto Movement” and “On the Devil’s Island; or, My Life and Death in the Warsaw Ghetto.” Her presence is expected but the human vessels she chooses aren’t always so predictable. (Making it that much more compelling to turn the page).
Skibell’s attention to historical and cultural/religious details is laudable. A Curable Romantic is first and foremost a love story but those details, and perhaps some liberties when it comes to personifying historical characters like Freud and Esperanto’s founder Dr. Zamenhof, make it an even more enjoyable read. Prior detailed knowledge of historical places and events probably isn’t necessary (what you learned in your H.S. European history class will give you enough context to help you from getting lost) but you may want to be prepared to Google when it comes to understanding Esperanto (there’s a good chunk of dialogue in the language), dybbuks and a few other kabbalistic ideas. (Or not. It’s certainly not necessary to get you through the novel. I just found myself wanting to know more).
I’m sure this novel is going to soar up The New York Times Best-Seller List in the coming weeks. Aside from being a good story well-told, the reincarnation theme is hot right now and the book made it onto Oprah’s September reading list (check out this spoiler-containing reading guide for some great discussion questions). So go out and buy the book. Take two weeks to get through it. And come back here so we can talk about how it was so. worth. the. thud.
*Yes, I do take into account hardcover vs. paperback. In the case of A Curable Romantic, I received a complimentary paperback Advance Reading Copy from Algonquin Books. So it was an apples to apples comparison. And, in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising,” I’m letting you know that just because I got to preview the book for free doesn’t mean I’m obligated to give it a favorable review. I’m doing that all on my own.