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Clara Mondschein's Melancholia [Hardcover]

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Item description for Clara Mondschein's Melancholia by Anne Raeff...

From the text:

"When I was younger, I wished I had been born in a concentration camp like my mother instead of in boring Englewood Hospital. I used to imagine all the prisoners crying mutely with joy while my grandmother lay swallowing her screams so the guards wouldn't hear."

So writes Deborah Gelb, the teenage daughter of the title character, in her opening chapter. Deborah's voice is complemented by that of Ruth Mondschein, Clara's mother, who recounts her life story to Tommy, a patient at the AIDS hospice where she volunteers. Through the alternating narratives of Deborah and Mrs. Mondschein, Clara Mondschein's Melancholia depicts the lives of three generations of women as both daughter and mother attempt to make sense of Clara's "melancholia" and the historical events that profoundly affected them all.

While the novel is set in mid-1990s New York and suburban New Jersey, Deborah and Mrs. Mondschein's stories move through much of the twentieth century, from Vienna and Czechoslovakia, to Spain and Morocco. At the heart of this ambitious novel is the question of why some people are strengthened by adversity -- even something as horrific as genocide -- while others are defeated by it. Clara Mondschein's Melancholia examines with bravado and sensitivity how the lingering effects of one of history's darkest hours -- including guilt, anger, loyalty and hope -- live on in a single family.

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Item Specifications...

Pages   258
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 9.26" Width: 6.22" Height: 1.06"
Weight:   1.23 lbs.
Binding  Hardcover
Release Date   Sep 1, 2002
Publisher   MacAdam/Cage
ISBN  1931561168  
ISBN13  9781931561167  

Availability  0 units.

More About Anne Raeff

Register your artisan biography and upload your photo! Anne Raeff, a child of refugees from World War II, grew up in Tneafly, New Jersey.

Anne Raeff currently resides in Albuquerque, in the state of New Mexico. Anne Raeff was born in 1959.

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > General > Contemporary
2Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > General > Literary
3Books > Subjects > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Historical

Reviews - What do customers think about Clara Mondschein's Melancholia?

A great modern voice in fiction  Jul 30, 2003
Great at evoking a sense of place and mood. I really felt the difference between the chapters as "Deborah" and the chapters as "Ruth." Laugh-outloud funny at times and sad the next. Raeff has clearly lived with people suffering from depression; she understands their rituals and need to inflict suffering and control others. A real find.
a disturbing portrait of the mentally ill  Jan 28, 2003
I confess I didn't finish the book. I tried, I wanted to , but as the depth of the character's mental illness and those around her took on more and more perverse and unreal proportions, I finally had to put it down.
As a daughter of Viennese Jewish holocaust refugees, I was highly motivated to continue. I was intrigued by the descriptions of pre-war Jewish life in Vienna and charmed by the Viennese locales. I hoped to strongly identify with the characters, especially the following generations. I was ultimately, however, only repelled.
From what I read, I found Clara's depressions and the capitulation of those around her to the disease (although the daughter seems to be finding her way as I closed the book) abhorrent.
Maybe the subject is too personal and I was looking for strength and heroines, however I would warn potential readers to tread carefully unless you are a fan of the dark side of the psyche.
Too Many Gaps  Jan 3, 2003
The author clearly does not understand heterosexual love and/or heterosexual sexuality, and skips over too many important details, specifically, why the grandmother and her gay husband conceived a child.
A great new book  Oct 1, 2002
Clara Mondschein's Melancholia is one of those books that you wish would never end! What a great new addition to the contemporary literary scene!

The book alternates between the voices of Mrs. Mondschein, a holocaust survivor from a modest Jewish family in Vienna, now living on Manhattan's west side, and her granddaughter, Deborah, an adolescent growing up in Tenafly, NJ, a New York City suburb. I could go on indefinitely listening to the 85-year-old Mrs. Mondschein telling her life story to Tommy as he lies dying of AIDS, and I could imagine forging ahead with Deborah as she charts her own future life course. As grandmother and granddaughter narrate, they thoughtfully weave together not only the compelling dramas of their own lives, but numerous issues that have pervaded the human condition probably since human life began. In her writing, Ms. Raeff is particularly adept at creating vivid moods, and describing the subtleties of contextual ambience, enabling the reader to really feel almost physically present in the book's varied settings -- from a dingy apartment in 1930's Vienna, to a lively neighborhood bar in 1990's Madrid, to a subway station in New York City (to name just a few settings).

With Mrs. Mondschein, we ponder the horrors of the holocaust from the distance of 50 years of subsequent living to see how some of its victims and survivors suffered, but also emerged with new strength and hope for a better world. Ms. Raeff's presentation of Mrs. Mondschein's time in a concentration camp creatively departs from the usual descriptions, as Mrs. Mondschein enters into an enigmatic relationship with the camp's commandant. Mrs. Mondschein's story also leads the reader to reflect upon the nature of love, intimacy, and companionship as she spends most of her adult life happily married to a gay man.

Deborah's story will probably remind many adult readers of their own adolescent angst, or perhaps of their own, seemingly all-knowing, sarcastic adolescent children. But Deborah's tough talk masks her insecurities as an adolescent dealing with forming her own identity, separate from her parents, whose influences she cannot, and ultimately does not want to fully deny. Deborah, an accomplished cellist, sensitively, and with humor, describes how she is caught between two worlds. On the one hand she goes through the motions of adolescent life in an affluent American suburb at the end of the 20th century, but on the other hand she must deal with the world of her intellectual parents who are rather removed from the realities of late 20th century life. A major portion of Deborah's narrative revolves around the summer she and her family spent in Spain, where she befriends a middle-aged Irish alcoholic, and where she also begins to come to terms with her lesbian sexual identity.

And so, what of Clara Mondschein, the title character? Clara is Mrs. Mondschein's daughter, and Deborah's mother, and their attempts to deal with Clara's debilitating depressive episodes pervade both of their narratives. But through the author's ingenious literary move of not giving Clara a narrative voice, Clara's subjective perspective remains a mystery, as she silently retreats to her bed, allowing her depression to take hold not only of herself, but of her husband, daughter, and parents. One is left to wonder why Clara succumbs to depression. Is her depression inherited from her maternal grandfather who suffered from "melancholia" at the end of his life? Or does its ultimate source lie in her experience of having been born in a concentration camp? Most likely, it is both. But more importantly, one is left to wonder why she does not seek treatment for her depression. In turn, this leads the reader to think about how some people find strength in adversity, and others are paralyzed by it. Although I felt sympathy for Clara, in the end, I found myself feeling more sympathy for Deborah and Mrs. Mondschein, whom Clara sometimes blames for her depression, because they suffer unnecessarily from Clara's refusal to even try to overcome her depression. And then, there is also Simon, Clara's husband and Deborah's father. Simon is a kindly, unassuming academic who lives in the minutiae of obscure historical documents, and is passively indulgent of Clara's melancholia. For Deborah's sake, one wants to shake Simon out of his co-dependence. But, at the same time, he is a complex and sympathetic character, leading the reader to think about why he, and people in general, do not always try to actively take control of some aspects of their lives.

Actually, my review here simply does not do this book justice because it is much more complex, rich, and evocative. It is filled with many other interesting characters; it is a lesson in history and art; it provides intelligent commentary on varied social issues from prejudice to the role of religion in society. It's both enjoyable and thought-provoking, and I highly recommend it. I can't wait to see more from this author!

A novel for a diverse audience  Sep 26, 2002
Clara Mondschein's Melancholia brings together an array of intelligent characters, as diverse as the historical and cultural conditions in which they live. Differences of gender, age, and sexual orientation--all are blended in a memorable tapestry of stories that become one story through the voices of the two narrators--the grandmother, a Holocaust survivor from Vienna, and her granddaughter, a teenage girl with musical talent and lesbian inclinations. Tying the two narrative threads together is the struggle of the grandmother and granddaughter to understand Clara, the daughter/mother who suffers from debilitating bouts of depression.

Anne Raeff's prose brings a smile to the lips, tears to the eyes, and enlightenment to the mind. No character or event is wasted. Even the most minor characters are well drawn, and the voices of the two narrators are particularly strong, honest, and insightful. The book was a pleasure to read, despite the need to treat harrowing events of twentieth-century European history. I was sorry it had to end.


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