I think Day for Night by Frederick Reiken is about Beverly Rabinowitz, who escaped from Poland and Lithuania as a child at the advent of WWII, coming to terms with her father’s presumed death and making several surprising discoveries about her life along the way. I say I think because, even after finishing the book, I’m not entirely sure. That certainly seems to be the main narrative, but at least half the book is dedicated to other people and their experiences. The jacket blurb states that “her story is not hers alone, but also that of a comatose teenage boy in Utah, an elusive sixties-era fugitive, an FBI agent pursuing a twenty-year obsession, a Massachusetts veterinarian who falls in love on a kibbutz in Israel, and a host of other characters.” The problem is that while Beverly interacts with some of these characters or, more tangentially, with characters who interact with the above characters, none of those characters’ stories or experiences have any bearing on Beverly’s quest whatsoever. You could take all of those characters out of the novel, and it wouldn’t matter one bit. The other character-driven problem is the lack of voice variation throughout the novel. Reiken tells Beverly’s story, sort of, through 10 chapters, each narrated by a different character. These characters usually pop up in at least one or two other chapters, sometimes more, either as an active participant or mentioned by an active participant. One would think that each of these characters would have a distinct voice. Though they all deal with distinct events and emotions, the voice of each character is mostly the same as the next, creating a monotonous and indistinct feel within the novel.
I feel like I understand what Reiken is trying to do, though. By utilizing this plot structure, Reiken seems to be trying to say that humans are all connected much more frequently than perhaps we realize and in surprising and unconventional ways. It’s a beautiful idea. In order for that to work, however, the connection must be purposeful and full of impact. Just because Beverly meets Dee when the guitarist in Dee’s band invites Beverly to their show doesn’t mean that Dee’s history of childhood abuse at the hands of her parents’ cult has anything to do with Beverly. They met. That’s it. Please don’t then devote at least two chapters each to Dee and her brother’s childhood abuse at the hands of cultists or her brother’s awakening from a coma or both their battles with multiple personality disorder when it has NOTHING to do with Beverly! Either tie the two narratives together or take the other one out completely. Honestly, it seems like Reiken was writing two vastly different novels, and neither he nor his editor realized it. AND WHO ON EARTH IS KATHERINE CLAY GOLDMAN???? As far as I can tell, she functions basically like Rowan Atkinson’s character in Love Actually, a guardian angel helping the many characters make the right decisions in the holiday season. Except whereas Rowan Atkinson’s nudges and pushes and winks significantly affected these people’s stories, Katherine Clay Goldman’s don’t. Or rather, she has no effect on Beverly Rabinowitz, ostensibly the PROTAGONIST of the novel. I can’t even…
(If you want to see an example of a story structured around a central theme done right, go watch Love Actually. You can thank me later.)
The plot is compelling. Rather, both plots are compelling. I wanted to know what happened. The problem with this is that Reiken suffers from what I like to call “And then…” writing. Paragraphs consist of “And then….And then….And then….”, and actions are described like staging directions for a film or play. “I walked into the room. Then I turned on the lights. Then I stared at the chair. I thought about how delicious cheese is.” You get the picture. This results in a truly engaging plot battling for supremacy against the most boring writing style ever cultivated. I didn’t know whether I was pushing through because I wanted to or because I knew that if I didn’t I would never finish. It might have been a combination. I did read it in about 3 days, but I also had the luxury of Thanksgiving to just sit down and read. Had Reiken split this into two separate novels, I think it would have resulted in two far more satisfying, character-driven, and complete novels.
Remember my declaration that I should read more contemporary fiction? I do have to say that this is a novel that bridges the gap between contemporary and historical fiction for me. Though it is set in the 1980’s (and published in 2010), it reads as contemporary fiction. The 1980’s of the novel could be the 2010’s of today or anytime, really. It is not a novel about the 1980’s, but a novel about people who just happen to be living at that time. So while it is not my contemporary time, I do consider it a contemporary novel. Also, it presented a very interesting perspective on World War II. Beverly, and a few of the other characters, remembered the war from experiencing it first hand. It is the recent and lived past for them. While there are still veterans of the war alive today, for someone of my generation, there is a sense of distance between us and that war. Even with my recent reading and viewing of material set during that time period, that distance still exists for me. So I appreciated the opportunity to view a few aspects of that war in a way that breaks down that distance just a bit.
This review sounds like I hated it and wouldn’t recommend it. That’s not really true. I did not care for this book, but it evoked a response from me. Not the response the author was likely going for, I’m sure, but still a rather engaged response. And for that reason, I will recommend you give it a try. Some of you will love it. Some of you will completely disagree with me about the quality of Reiken’s prose style or about the lack of obvious interconnectedness in the plots. Some of you will completely agree with me. I encourage you to read it and find out which side you are on. And I’d love to know what you think, so we can continue our friendly and spirited debate.