Joan Leegant’s novel is rooted in three narratives. The characters are distinct, but each is a young American who has travelled to Israel, and, you’ll see, there are other similarities in their stories too.
Yona was first in Israel ten years earlier, having accompanied her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, but she returned to America a short time later. Her sister, Dena, has been living there ever since, but is now married, to a different man with whom she has five children.
Yona doesn’t even know the children’s names, because she hasn’t seen or spoken to her sister in ten years. When Wherever You Go opens, Yona is going to her sister’s house: ten years later, without warning. It’s rather extreme, but it’s what is necessary, Yona believes.
Mark has been teaching in Israel, having thoroughly disappointed and angered his father with his decision to leave New York in pursuit of his faith. His father is not only dismissive of Mark’s reasons for leaving, but insults and provokes him in equal measures.
Mark’s father is understandably confused. The problems that he was having in terms of understanding his son were rather ordinary at one time (maybe the boy smoked up too much, pushed the envelope in terms of being irresponsible), but then Mark did an about-face. Horrified by what he saw as the trajectory of his life, he found God, became a religious scholar and moved to Jerusalem. It was an extreme reaction, but Mark believed he was called to this new path.
Aaron, too, is coping with having fundamentally disappointed his father. Aaron was meant to go to a good school (but he didn’t have the marks) to study something important (like law or medicine); instead he was a student at a state school (his father won’t even speak its name) and the courses he was enjoying most were in the animal husbandry program.
Aaron doesn’t intend to take part in Jewish student programs, but he meets a girl, who is girl-next-door pretty. Unhappy at school to begin with, this girl is the one part of being there that appeals to Aaron and he becomes determined to win her romantic attentions. He agrees to attend a couple of events, but it’s not until he agrees to travel to Jerusalem to study with her that he finally believes their relationship will develop as he’s hoping. It’s a bit extreme, but he’s really into her.
Each of these characters makes very dramatic decisions.
Conflict underscores their choice and, be it parent-child or romantic or sibling, these are not unusual situations.
Readers will have no difficulty identifying with these characters’ emotions and circumstances.
Also, in the context of their stories, the author is considering the variety of answers to this question: What does it mean to be Jewish?
Whether in America or in Israel, this question can be answered in a myriad of ways, and even for readers who have little experience of this matter can identify easily through this narrative.
Maybe you are one of a “sea of Hasidim in inky black hats, as if a flock of crows had swooped down and settled on everyone’s heads”.
Or perhaps your most Jewish experience is watching Seinfeld re-runs.
Or you are one of a group praying nearly continuously on an airplane, “prayer shawls draped down their backs like superhero capes”.
Perhaps one of the “thousand sons of Zion” with their “new, muscular Hebrew names”.
Or a third generation Israeli with roots in anti-Semitic Poland.
Maybe you have only been in Israel for nine years, birthing five children, but never having spilled a drop of blood for the country, so you are still considered a newcomer.
Or maybe you live your life in pursuit of Israel as it should be, Greater Israel, “the Whole Land, not just the castrated allotment carved out by the armistice lines in 1948”.
Pinchas Wasserman is “doughy, with the thick NewYork accent of a man who’d never been out of the yeshiva”. He is Jewish.
Elias loves “his demitasse, his Metropolitan Opera box, his bright shiny showroom on Madison Avenue, his nine-bedroom colonial in Westchester”. He, too, is Jewish.
Wherever You Go does a fine job of presenting answers to this question with an appropriate amount of complexity and simplicity.
The readers see what those characters see, they experience Israel through their perspectives.
So although there is some variation in their outlooks, there are no expository segments that discuss matters of political importance, and history is revealed in phrases and glimpses.
It is a political novel only in the sense that many of the decisions that we make everyday are rooted in political realities. Some people we know are more politically aware than others. The same can be said of the characters in Joan Leegant’s novel.
One character’s father describes Israel like this: “Country’s practically a war zone.”
But the reply from the character who has lived there reveals something quite different: “To live there, you wouldn’t know it. Life goes on. It’s a beautiful country really.”
There are, however, no drawn-out descriptive passages either. The sensory detail is presented sparingly but effectively.
Whether it is clanging and the blare of loudspeakers, or whether it is a humming electric stillness. Or the peppery sharpness of geraniums. Or the muddy sediment of Botz, the Israeli version of Turkish coffee, boiled four times and like a triple espresso. Or someone is “paunchily naked”, or strains to see through a “gritty haze of yellow dust”. Or feels the fluted circle imprinted on a palm after a bottle cap has been gripped too tightly.
All the reader’s senses are engaged, but with a light touch.
But there is a heavy side to the story.
That aspect of the novel has a universal aspect to it, but it’s also something which plays out in a very particular way because the lives of these three characters do not intersect just anywhere but in Jerusalem.
Here’s Yona, shortly after readers have met her: “Her eyes were welling up and her throat had closed.”
And Mark: “He felt like he had a hole in his heart.”
And Aaron, who “took another thick swallow. For the thousandth time that day, he wished he’d brought more water.”
They are straining, they are struggling.
“You don’t want to be me…. Believe me, whoever you are, you don’t want to be like me.”
Any one of them might have said that.
And these feelings could, of course, have been felt anywhere.
But, as a minor character observes: people often come to Jerusalem to fix something that isn’t working.
And what happens when people are pressed to their limits, when they are prepared to make extreme choices to make something right?
It usually fits someone else’s idea of doing something wrong.
That’s true wherever you go.
David Grossman’s Someone to Run With 2000 (Trans. Vered Almog, Maya Gurantz; 2004)
Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto (2001)
Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers (2011)