Sunday, April 29, 2012

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

Fanya and Esther are twins, Jewish, and growing up in the early 1900s.  Their mother believes that they will take over her dress shop, but both girls are pulled by very different interests in very different direction.  Fanya begins assisting a woman who performs illegal abortions and helps birth babies, and Esther begins assisting at a brothel.  As the girls grow older, they fall further in to these chosen professions, and their decisions pull them apart.

I read this in one sitting because I didn't want to stop.  I needed to know what happened.  It was a story about family and a story about how the choices we make affect us, and it was a story about how little the perceptions of society have changed.


There were so many parallels between what the girls were doing, even if it didn't seem that way at first.  After Esther begins taking clients at the brothel, her mother and sister find out and she's cast out from the family.  Esther is now dead to them because of her decision. Both girls are participating in activities that are illegal and that are shunned by society.  Yet Esther is the one who gets cut off from her family.  Being a professional "whore" is the worst possible thing.

Fanya works with Bronia, a woman who is strongly against marriage, seeing is as slavery for women.  However, she will only help married women.  She turns away unmarried women and the women of the brothel, saying they do not deserve her help.  Bronia believes that women should abstain from sexual relationships all together.  Fanya does not want to get married, but she also struggles with Bronia's decisions not to help unmarried women, or to try and encourage women to use condoms.  She begins to feel that Bronia is a hypocrite.

Esther has come a long way, in the meantime, having been plucked out of the brothel by a wealthy business man and now is working in the theater.  She is the one who seeks out her sister and cares for her when she needs it, despite Fanya's assistance that she doesn't need help.

After I was done reading the book, I sat and thought about choices.  Who made the better choices?  Could things have turned out differently?  Was there really a sister who made better choices?  Not really.  Esther worked in a brothel, that didn't seem like a very good choice, but she ended up in a better place.  Fanya learned how to bring babies and perform abortions.  She helped many people.  But she had a lot of choices to make as well, and things didn't turn out as well for her.

I thought this was incredibly well done.  Aside from the main stories, we also got to see a lot of Russian Jewish culture, and how Fanya and Esther's father ended up in America married to their mother.

The art, which is also done by the author, is pen and ink black and white drawings.  No one is very beautiful in the drawings.  Almost every character looks harsh.  Despite this, you could see Esther changing as she got older.  Her style evolves and she becomes much more elegant.  But despite her fancy clothes and stylish haircut, she's still very much the Jewish girl from the lower East side she always was and there's no way to hide it.

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