Synopses & Reviews
Growing old is one of the most surprising things that has happened to her. She hadnt given it any thought. Then one day, she was eighty-five. She is old. Not just old, but an object of derision, pity. Is there any use explaining that she is still herselfalbeit a slower, achier, creakier version of the original?” from Being Esther
Born to parents who fled the shtetl, Esther Lustig has led a seemingly conventional lifemarriage, two children, a life in suburban Chicago. Now, at the age of eighty-five, her husband is deceased, her children have families of their own, and most of her friends are gone. Even in this diminished condition, life has its moments of richness, as well as its memorable characters. But above all there are the memories. Of better days with Marty, her husband. Of unrealized obsessions with other men.
As she moves back and forth through time, Esther attempts to come to terms with the meaning of her outwardly modest life. As a young woman, she wondered about the world beyond the narrow, prescribed world she inhabited. Now, cruelly, she cant help but wonder if she has done anything for which she will be remembered.
At once sad and amusing, unpretentious yet wonderfully ambitious, Miriam Karmels debut novel brings understanding and tremendous empathy to the unforgettable Esther Lustig.
A journalist and freelance writer, Miriam Karmel has published writing in AARP The Magazine, Minnesota Womens Press, Bellevue Literary Review, and Minnesota Monthly. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota and Sandisfield, Massachusetts. Being Esther is her first novel.
"The heroine of Karmel's meandering debut novel is Esther Lustig, an 85-year-old widow who has led a quiet, middle-class Jewish life in the Chicago suburbs. Confronting the inevitability of death and the gradual diminishment of her faculties, Esther rummages through the past from her marriage to an overbearing man, to her difficult relationship with her daughter, to thoughts (and even, a little more than thoughts) of romance with other men. Increasingly alone as her friends die or fade away, Esther regrets a life led without risk, and struggles to stay independent when her children try to put her in a home. The narrative progresses through loosely tied vignettes of the past and present, which dwell on the muted struggles and triumphs confronting an elderly woman whose life is defined by her ordinariness and quiet dignity. With its too-easy melancholy, the unremarkable plot is unfortunately matched by flavorless prose, and in the end, little insight is gained into Esther. The novel has graceful moments that aspire to the heights of Grace Paley or Alice Munro, but the overall effect is forgettable." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Growing old is one of the most surprising things that has happened to her. She hadn't given it any thought. Then one day, she was eighty-five. Not just old, but an object of derision, pity. Is there any use explaining that she is still herselfalbeit a slower, achier, creakier version of the original?"
from Being Esther
Being Esther intimately explores the interior consciousness of an elderly Jewish woman who lives as much in the past as in the present.
Whereas the past includes pleasant memories of family, love and lust, the happy confines of marriage, and the rare occasions to break those confineslike taking a part-time job as a bookseller at Kroch's and Brentano'sthe present includes crossing out the names of the deceased in a phonebook, fending off attempts by her daughter to move into assisted living, daily check-ins with a neighbor, and the occasional outing. Not prone to self-pity, Esther is at moments lucid and then suddenly lost in a world which has disappeared along with many who had inhabited it.
Miriam Karmel's fiction debut brings understanding and tremendous empathy to the character of Esther Lustig, a woman who readers will not soon forget.
Praise for Being Esther
A novel about an eighty-five-year-old widow living in suburban Chicago may not sound irresistible, but thanks to Karmels beautifully precise prose, her absolute fidelity to her characters and their vicissitudes, and her keen wit, Being Esther is impossible to put down. What a wonderful debut.”
Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy
Being Esther is a small masterpiece, every detail unerring. I wanted Esther to move in next door so we could play two-hand bridge and mix drinks with names like South Side Sling or Not Your Aunt Nellie. I would coax her to tell me about the boys before Marty and about the Starrlights. In Esther, Miriam Karmel has created a character one will never forget nor ever stop loving.”
Faith Sullivan, author of The Cape Ann and Gardenias
Miriam Karmels Esther is such a lively and attentive companion that I loved viewing the world through her eyes. Her acuteness challenges anyone who imagines aging only as diminution and a fading sense of self. Looking back, looking forward, Esther is curious, wryly funny and always (sometimes painfully) honest.”
Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After
In spare, refreshingly unsentimental prose, Minnesotan Miriam Karmel has given us one of literature's finest portraits of the last days of a woman's life. At once sad and amusing, unpretentious and ambitious, Karmel's fiction debut brings understanding and tremendous empathy to the character of Esther Lustig, a woman readers will recognize and embrace.
A wonderful fiction debut, Being Esther
gives voice to Esther Lustig, an extraordinary woman who has lived a conventional life, in this touching exploration of aging and its accompanied search for meaning.
In spare, refreshingly unsentimental prose, Miriam Karmel has given us one of literatures finest portraits of the last months of a womans life. At once sad and amusing, unpretentious and ambitious, Karmels fiction debut brings understanding and tremendous empathy to the character of Esther Lustig, a woman readers will recognize and embrace.
Born to parents who fled the shtetl, Esther Lustig has led a seemingly conventional lifemarriage, two children, a life in suburban Chicago. Now, at the age of eighty-five, her husband is deceased, her children have families of their own, and most of her friends are gone. Even in this diminished condition, life has its moments of richness, as well as its memorable characters. Being Esther is an exploration of aging, a search for meaning, and about the need, as Esther puts it, for better roadmaps for growing old.
About the Author
has worked professionally as a newspaper reporter and magazine editor, and most recently as a freelance writer specializing in medicine and health. Her journalism has appeared in AARP
magazine and for many years in Minnesota Women's Press
. Her fiction has won numerous regional prizes, and her stories have been published in Bellevue Literary Review
, Minnesota Monthly
, as well as anthologized in Milkweed's Fiction on a Stick
(2008). She lives in Minneapolis, MN and Sandisfield, MA. Being Esther
is her first novel.
Finding the right container by Miriam Karmel
Ive always been a writer. I produced my first awkward efforts on my parents clunky old Royal. It was a heavy, metal machine with a black-and-red striped ribbon and fat, pearly keys. I couldnt yet read, but I loved pounding the keys, then ripping the paper from the roller and showing it off to my mother. Id like to think that she praised me for all that gibberish. Or perhaps my random jottings were as remarkable as those of the chimpanzee who types Shakespeare by chance. What does it matter? Gibberish or Shakespeare, I loved putting words on paper.
Later, I wrote letters to friends at summer camp. I was stuck at home with parents who didnt believe” in camp, as if going away for the summer was a matter of faith. I entertained myself by writing what I believed were hilarious dispatches from the home front. I advanced to reporting for a newspaper, where I had a regular beat. And I wrote for magazines. Over the years, Ive written op-ed pieces and essays, short stories and even poems, though I am not a poet.
Being Esther began as a short story called Bingoville.” It starts with a passage describing the way Esther and her friend Lorraine check in with each other every morning by phone. After I finished the story, I couldnt stop thinking about Esther. How does she spend her days? What does she eat for breakfast? What are her fears? What does she wear? What does she think about this thing or that? What did she do when she was young? I couldnt let go.
Every story, fact or fiction, needs a container. Poets know that best. They seek a particular form to contain their words. Ode. Sonnet. Free verse. Sestina. Haiku. Or sometimes the poet adheres to a form as a way of opening up new possibilities or new territories for expression. Either way, form is chosen with intention. The story I wanted to tell, about an old woman coming to terms with the meaning of her life, felt right as fiction. Bingoville,” the original Esther story, was contained in the short form. When I realized that I wasnt finished with Esther, I knew that I needed a larger container. I wrote a novel.
I could have done otherwise. I could have interviewed gerontologists and psychologists, older people and the children of older people, then packaged all my findings into a magazine article, with some irksome title like, Growing Old Aint for Sissies.” The article might even begin with an anecdote about an older woman, like Esther, who calls a friend every morning to ensure that each has made it through another night. The article would go on to offer advice from experts on how to talk to mom about giving up the car keys or how to keep mom safe in her own home. Thered be a sidebar: 10 Tips for Staying Independent.
That story would be practical and informative. But it wasnt the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to write about what it feels like to be old. I wanted to write about the struggle to maintain ones dignity as the body, and sometimes the mind, defeats us.
I did research, of course. I read books on aging. I read the diaries of older women. I listened to friends stories about how they were dealing with aging parents. Some of that found a way into Being Esther. I made it up!
Being Esther is my invention. I dont know anyone exactly like Esther Lustig. And I dont know what it feels like to be very old. Fiction gave me the license to explore that feeling. I was free to inhabit the body of an old woman, to feel what it is like to be Esther.
Ive been asked how I came to fiction after a long career in journalism. I havent at long last arrived at fiction. I simply chose to tell a story in a different form. Perhaps in my dotage, Ill be pounding the keys again, producing reams of gibberish. For now, it feels good to know that I could tell a story in novel form.