In 1913 the French publishing house Grasset released Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust, the first installment of what has since become one of the most important novels in literary history. This arresting work of fiction is a glimpse into the world of 20th-century French aristocracy, stitched together with, among other things, tales of love affairs as intense as they are covert, of life in a wealthy countryside village, of illness, of the struggle of Jews in high society. In 2018 an author by the pen name Kitty Zeldis published a similar book: Not Our Kind. And by similar I mean the complete opposite.
Set in postwar America, Not Our Kind is a coming-of-age story about a recent Jewish Vassar graduate who takes a job as a private tutor for a wealthy family whose daughter had polio, all the while navigating a world that is unfriendly to Jews. Everything is turned upside down when she falls in love with her pupil’s uncle. At a time when we find ourselves reckoning once more with subtler forms of American anti-Semitism, this book should have found itself perfectly positioned to resonate with readers. However, it fails for the most part to explore this part of the protagonist’s story in a meaningful way, and merely glosses it—Judaism feels like little more than a character. Even though the protagonist must change her name to hide the fact that she’s Jewish, we never really feel the gravity of this change. Judaism is mentioned almost casually and at the end of conversations. For the most part, it treats the matter of being an outsider as an afterthought, even though the idea is in the title itself. And there’s the question of why this author and publisher chose to use a pseudonym in a book where her character must also change her name to fit in.
But Not Our Kind is so much more than an even-tempered story of a young woman’s encounter with venomous high society. It’s actually more like a Black Mirror episode version of Swann’s Way. Rather than a meandering enigma that touches on many aspects of 20th-century life through a focused thematic lens (which took Proust seven volumes to accomplish), Not Our Kind is actually seven books crammed into one. If it’s difficult to say exactly what this book is about, it’s not because it tells a bigger story that cannot be defined in terms of a specific plot but rather because it switches gears entirely too often. At first it’s a story about class and the covert anti-Semitism that a young teacher, Eleanor, experiences in a wealthy New York social circle. Then it becomes a countryside romance when Eleanor goes to Connecticut with the family she works for. Then it becomes a story about trauma when Eleanor gets attacked by her employer’s husband. Then it becomes a story about a young woman finding independence in New York. Finally it’s one about female friendship. But Not Our Kind is never actually more than one of these at the same time. It isn’t a book in which many different things happen; it’s a book that cannot figure out what it wants to be about.
In Swann’s Way Proust’s sense of place makes us fall in love with the countryside village of Combray as if it were a memory in our own hearts. There is an entire chapter about place names and how elusive our memories of place can feel, how in these memories we also store parts of ourselves. In Not Our Kind, people don’t stay places very long. Not infrequently does someone travel a great distance just to go somewhere else for no reason, or simply to go back home. At one point a character drives all the way to Connecticut, reads a letter, and then decides to drive right away to another part of New England. People go out for drinks and then don’t talk about the thing they came to talk about. Location is merely a vehicle for a character having a particular thought, and once finished, they can then leave immediately.
Not unlike the way Proust describes the sensual pleasures of his world, Zeldis’ characters are constantly eating—often seafood—and we get descriptions of the way they put things into their mouths. And like the famous madeleine scene, in which Proust takes one bite of a cookie and is flooded immediately by memories of his childhood, in Not Our Kind, the protagonist’s love interest mixes her a Manhattan cocktail which she then, with similarly florid prose and halting lyricism, describes as “so good.”
The psychological component of Swann’s Way is amplified by his prose. His famously long sentences match the way in which his entire world and each acutely incisive observation is presented before us. Style is as poetic as the thoughts themselves. And characters have idiosyncratic ways of speaking. Every character in Not Our Kind speaks the same way. In fact you frequently lose track of who is speaking and have to go back and count alternating lines of dialogue to figure out whose line is whose. And on occasion Zeldis offers up an idea so transparently out of place that in the next sentence she tries to absolve herself for it by preempting a reader’s objection. When a young girl makes a completely out-of-character observation, Zeldis has the protagonist immediately remark how precocious the young girl is, as if this will suddenly straighten things out. When a character who is supposed to be eminently charming does something corny instead of charming, Zeldis has someone say, “You’re so corny.” The same way Proust teaches us new ways to use language, so too, incidentally, does Zeldis, occasionally through the broken English of a Polish cook who speaks in phrases like, “I no want to say.”
Not everyone can write like Proust, nor should they have to in order to produce strong, compelling fiction. And you don’t need 4,000 pages to tell a sprawling, intimate, psychological story. The French are masters of doing it in under 200. But by far the easiest way of describing Not Our Kind is by explaining the ways in which it is completely different from Proust’s novel specifically because of what Not Our Kind appears to try to do. Regardless of whether or not Zeldis actually wanted to write a novel for the ages, Not Our Kind has all the elements of a person aspiring to it. And so on the question of whether it did not end up actually doing something lofty, or what it means if somehow this book accomplished everything it’s author intended, I answer with the words of the great author Marcel Proust: “Perhaps it is in not-being that we find our true selves, and that all our dreams of life are actually the nonexistent.” And as for where that leaves Not Our Kind, well, to quote another great author, I no want to say.
Read Alexander Aciman’s Bookworm column in Tablet magazine on Mondays.