Much Ado About Jesse Kaplan
by Paula Marantz Cohen
Published by St. Martin's Press
277 pages, 2004
Fiddler on the Goof
Reviewed by David Abrams
In her debut novel, Jane Austen in Boca, Paula Marantz Cohen transplanted Mr. Darcy and the Bennett household to Florida with a group of Jewish widows standing in for the Austen gals. Now, in her sophomore novel, Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan, Cohen brings William Shakespeare and the Dark Lady of his sonnets to Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where another Jewish widow thinks she's the reincarnation of the mysterious woman for whom sonnets 127 to 152 were supposedly written.
The novel centers around Carla Goodman who, as the story opens, is desperately trying to hold her family together. Her husband Mark, a gastroenterologist, is depressed about a slump in business, worrying that colonoscopies just aren't as sexy or lucrative as, say, heart surgeries. "It's one thing to look up butts and get rich," he complains. "It's another to do it for nickels and dimes."
Carla's ten-year-old son is a holy terror at school -- he's constantly coming home with notes from the principal like "Dear Mrs. Goodman, your son's poking of the girls with pencils is unacceptable."
Her 12-year-old daughter, Stephanie, is tempestuously moody and stressed-out about her upcoming bat mitzvah for which she must have the perfect dress, shoes and catered food.
And then there's Carla's 72-year-old mother, the titular Jessie, who's been acting a bit strange lately, despite the fact that she was normally "one of those rare specimens: an even-tempered, uncomplaining Jewish woman, who performed household chores with cheerfulness and efficiency." Now Jessie goes around serving meals of venison and mead, offers to mend Mark's doublet and starts acting like a woman in love. The fact that she's smitten with a fellow named Will who's been dead 400 years doesn't seem to faze her in the slightest.
Jessie is convinced she's the one to whom Shakespeare wrote his most famous sonnets. In her mind, she's "the fairest and most precious jewel," the daughter of a Jewish merchant who lived in Venice in the early 1600s. As if she didn't already have enough to juggle in her Jewish household, Carla must now contend with Jessie's apparent dementia. This eventually drives her to the office of Dr. Leonard Samuels, famed psychiatrist and author of the bestselling How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love My Mother-in-Law. Samuels dispenses advice like Pez candies: get your son in therapy, let your daughter choose her own bat mitzvah dress and encourage your husband to self-promote his business (which Mark does and soon he's writing a weekly newspaper column on spastic colons).
Only her mother's Shakespeare fantasy remains and, as the clock winds down toward the novel's centerpiece -- Stephanie's bat mitzvah -- Jessie chases her dream all the way back to Venice where her Dark Lady life began.
Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan eventually erupts into a cavalcade of jittery nerves, romance and kosher food. At times, Cohen's novel resembles a Preston Sturges screwball comedy (minus the film director's trademark acidic satire) mixed with the chaos of a Jewish household a la Fiddler on the Roof. Call it "Fiddler on the Goof" since Cohen rarely shies away from a good nudge-in-the-ribs joke.
Through it all, Cohen paints a loving portrait of Cherry Hill and the Philly area. The suburban mall paradise proves to be the perfect setting for much ado about the Gap. Just as Shakespeare went around deflating Elizabethan mores with pricks of his quill pen, so Cohen takes the air out of Cherry Hill's tires:
Although most of the area's residents make a comfortable living, they see buying at full price as a kind of moral backsliding, like sleeping past noon or eating a whole container of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. It happens, but one feels bad about it afterward.
Much Ado About Jessie Kaplan has all the crazy fun of a Shakespearean romp in the woods, complete with mistaken identities and slightly over-the-top characters. In fact, if he were living in Cherry Hill these days, the Bard would probably be beaming at what Cohen has done with his Dark Lady. | January 2005
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.