The Matchmaker's Gift: A Novel
“A fascinating visit to a little-known pocket of U.S. immigrant history.”
When a novel pairs a current-day plot line with a story set in the past, the historical narrative tends to be more interesting than the contemporary one, by virtue of the relatively exotic setting, if nothing else. That’s certainly the case with The Matchmaker’s Gift.
This book’s back-in-time narrative follows Sara Glikman, a Jewish matchmaker, who starts her accidental career in 1910 at age 10 aboard a steamship from Eastern Europe to New York City, while searching for someone who can lend her elder sister a clean handkerchief. Over the next 84 years, Sara will connect a range of colorful characters: the daughter of “the Pickle King of New York” and a dentist. The offspring of two feuding families of knish-makers. Her own beau and a housemaid.
“Fight for something,” she advises her grown granddaughter, Abby. “Not just against. . . . And if you can’t decide what you want to fight for, love is as good a cause as any.”
Clouding the how-will-she-do-it charm of Sara’s matchmaking, however, are some serious historical issues. As an unmarried young woman, Sara is challenging the social structure of the community and, in particular, the marriage monopoly of the all-male shadchanim, by her choice of career. She tries to stop making the matches that she foresees so clearly, and when that becomes too emotionally painful, she continues her work surreptitiously, without payment.
“For eight years she had hidden her talents, squirreled them away like so many nuts in an endless, sunless, frozen winter,” she thinks. “And what was the result of all that obedience? Her family was hungry. . . . She was lonely and unfulfilled.”
Unfortunately, Sara’s chapters alternate with not as compelling chapters focused on Abby, set in the summer of 1994.
This modern narrative starts with a cliché—the discovery of boxes of Sara’s old journals—and keeps piling on more. Abby is a hard-driving associate in a Manhattan law firm that specializes in divorce, with an even more hard-driving female Tiger Boss. She has no interest in romance, because as a little girl she was deeply hurt by her charismatic father’s cavalier adultery, his skimping on financial support for Abby’s mother, and his constant breaking of dinner plans with Abby and her little sister . . . Even Sara has now been transformed into the stereotype of a babka-baking Yiddishe Mama whose apartment smells of “roasted chickens, cheese blintzes, and oatmeal cookies, heavy with chocolate and walnuts.”
The good news is that Abby reluctantly finds herself following in her grandmother’s employment footsteps, and the tales of her unwilling matchmaking are more interesting than her own life story.
A fascinating visit to a little-known pocket of U.S. immigrant history.