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An Ancient Conflict Creates a New Family
Reading All I Love and Know, a new novel by Judith Frank, it is impossible not to hear the words of the fictional author Melvin Udall at some point.
Udall, played by Jack Nicholson (who won an Oscar for his performance) is the protagonist of the 1997 film As Good As It Gets. In one memorable scene, he is asked by his therapist’s receptionist how he writes women so well. His response: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”
The inverse could easily be asked of Frank. Her two main characters, Daniel and Matt, a gay couple in Northampton, Mass., nestled in the bosom of the Berkshire Mountains and home to one of the country’s largest per capita lesbian populations — are fallible, complicated and they love each other with an easily identifiable messiness.
Frank, 55, laughs at the comparison, saying that she doesn’t believe that men and women are as different as everyone says they are, although she does acknowledge making use of a lodestar: her gay friends. “I had my native informants,” she explains. “My gay male friends read the book at different moments, and I did check in with people at times.”
The very nature and scope of All I Love and Know necessitated not just her researching people, but institutions and history as well. The book, which Frank will read from and discuss at the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Central Branch on July 24, takes place between 2003 and 2004, in Jerusalem during the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, and the dawn of gay marriage in Northampton, Mass. Daniel’s identical twin brother, Josh, and his wife, Ilana, have just been murdered at a Jerusalem café by a suicide bomber. Unbeknownst to even their parents, Josh and Ilana named Daniel and Matt as guardians of their children, 6-year-old Gal and her baby brother, Noam.
The first section of the book is an unsparing, raw glimpse into all the ways that a family can be pulled apart by the chaos of unimaginable loss. Frank lays out all that goes into grieving for victims of terrorism in Israel — the identification of the bodies, the planning of the services, even the dedicated social worker provided by the government to help those left behind deal with what lies ahead.
Frank’s ability to evoke the rhythms, closeness and heat of Jerusalem doesn’t rely on research alone. The Amherst professor, who plumbed the depths of her own lesbian community in her first novel, Crybaby Butch, received her undergraduate degree from Hebrew University. Her six-year residency in Israel began as a teenager, when her mother moved her, her identical twin sister and her brother to Jerusalem from Evanston, Ill.
Frank’s sister, Paula, married an Israeli man and still lives in the country. She not only provided a place to stay during fact-finding missions; she supported Frank’s decision to have her book revolve around the death of an identical twin.
“I talked to her about it,” Frank recalls. “I jokingly said, ‘How do you feel about this book being predicated on a fantasy of your death?’ She was incredibly good-natured about it, but having to imagine her death was really hard.”
Frank also drew on her relationship with her nieces to establish Daniel’s connection to his niece and nephew. “We didn’t live close to each other, but we have always been really close,” she says. “Me looking like their mom but not being their mom — that is a kind of magic that they adore, and I wanted to work it the other way” in the book.
Daniel has difficulty connecting with his niece, not least because every glimpse of him is a brutal reminder of what she has lost. Frank’s ability to switch perspective halfway through the book and begin to tell it from Gal’s point of view is remarkable. The inchoate fears and desires of childhood swirl throughout the girl’s transition away from all she knew and loved in Israel to the unfamiliar terrain of western Massachusetts.
To capture Gal’s voice, Frank didn’t have to go far to find source material: she and her partner are the parents of twin 6-year-old girls. Becoming a mother gave her plenty of insight into writing about a young girl, but, she says, the most significant impact parenthood had on the book was how she was able to relate more to Matt, a handsome graphic designer who treasured his heretofore carefree lifestyle. “I was suddenly in Matt’s head,” she says with a laugh. “ ‘These creatures have fallen in my lap!’ ”
Most of All I Love and Know is told from Matt’s viewpoint, which gives an outsider’s perspective on Jewish rituals and lives — he never converted to Judaism — and welcome respites of humor courtesy of his commentary on others as well as his own drama queen tendencies.
“He’s in over his head, and is an outsider as well,” Frank elaborates. “That’s why I started with him. You’re going to meet all these characters and they’re all traumatized. He is the least traumatized; his sense of humor and irreverence helped me a lot.”
Those moments of levity are definitely welcome in a book that covers so many flashpoints. Between tackling issues like same-sex marriage, the rights of Palestinians versus those of Israelis and frank depictions of sex between two men, All I Love and Know is sure to provide plenty of fodder for book groups. Frank says she wants to get people talking, adding that there will be an online study guide to help people navigate through the thornier subjects, although she hopes they will be able to come to one realization on their own.
“One of the biggest indicators of a person’s support of gay rights is based on whether they know a gay person, and after reading the book, I hope people will feel as though they know two gay people.”