Michael Lowenthal Essay - Critical Essays

Lowenthal, Michael

Introduction

Michael Lowenthal The Same Embrace

Lowenthal is an American short story writer and novelist.

In his first novel, The Same Embrace, Lowenthal focuses on the need to balance individualism with a sense of acceptance from others. The protagonist, Jacob Rosenbaum, is a twenty-five year old gay activist at odds with his identical twin Jonathan, an Orthodox Jew. The brothers, who were close in their youth, have separated over differences in sexuality and religion. The twins' parents beseech Jacob to journey to Israel to convince Jonathan to return home to Boston from the yeshiva where he is studying. Jacob's trip ends in failure when Jonathan finds his twin engaging in a sexual act with a fellow student. Jonathan's eventual return home, precipitated by his grandmother's stroke, brings the conflict between the two brothers to a head. During their grandmother's illness, the family is forced into close proximity, and the brothers learn more of their family's history. One of the revelations involves the story of Uncle Josef, whom the twin's grandfather abandoned in Nazi Germany because Josef was gay. The entire family comes to a reconciliation and while the brothers never grow close, they do achieve a greater acceptance and understanding of one another. Critics praise Lowenthal's skillful use of detail; his believable, moving scenes of family conflict and reconciliation; and his handling of sexual and religious themes.

Criticism

Publishers Weekly (review date 6 July 1998)

SOURCE: A review of The Same Embrace, in Publishers Weekly, July 6, 1998, p. 49.

[In the following review, the critic praises Lowenthal's command of dialogue and his descriptive powers.]

The shadow of the Holocaust looms over this affecting first novel, a tale of identical twins who must come to terms with their peculiar bond and its limits. Jacob Rosenbaum, openly gay and mourning the recent death of his best friend, travels from Boston to Israel in order to persuade his brother Jonathan, newly and fervently orthodox, to leave the yeshiva where he is studying and return to the U.S. More than religious and sexual differences keep the brothers apart. Both need to overcome the legacy of their stern rabbi grandfather, who pitted them against each other in wrestling contests when they were boys (matches that Jacob always won). Jacob's struggle to reconcile with his brother is as much an account of a family history of estrangement and secrets as it is about the contradictions of being twins: two people, physically alike, so close they dream the same dreams, who simultaneously long to assert their individuality and return to their comforting singular identity. Lowenthal has a keen eye for details: a warm office has a scent "like the custardy smell of cotton towels removed from a spinning dryer." A beautiful boy has a "peach pit of muscle" at the corner of his jaw. He avoids the cliches of a coming-out novel, and his assured dialogue, smooth weaving of the narrative back and forth in time, and layering of cultural, sexual and religious themes coalesce into an impressively crafted, moving debut.

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 July 1998)

SOURCE: A review of The Same Embrace, in Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1998, pp. 990-91.

[In the following review, the critic credits Lowenthal with a "moving" portrayal of a family in conflict.]

[The Same Embrace is a] closely observed study of the corrosive effect of a family's long-held secrets and, more particularly, of the struggle of siblings to defuse their anger and find some common ground.

Jacob, the 25-year-old protagonist, is bright, Jewish, and gay. His parents are at best unhappy with their son's homosexuality; his twin brother Jonathan, studying at an Orthodox Yeshiva in Israel, is angry and withdrawn. Jacob, urged on by his parents, leaves his job in Boston and goes to Israel to try to talk his brother into returning home. Instead, though he has had little interest in his faith, Jacob finds himself increasingly impressed by the innocent high spirits of the students, and by some of their teachers. Things go disastrously wrong, though, when Jonathan finds Jacob in a fervent embrace with another Yeshiva student. Back home, matters turn grim when the boys' beloved grandmother is felled by a massive stroke. Jacob gets to meet his aunt Isabel, long in exile from the family, and through her to learn about the existence of a figure whose memory they has long suppressed: Josef, his uncle, left behind as a teenager when the family fled from Nazi Germany, was abandoned by Jacob's grandfather, it turns out, because he was gay. Lowenthal's rendering of the hesitant attempts at communication in a family scarred by bitterness and regret are precise and deeply moving. Jacob's increasingly focused efforts to reconcile his heritage and his homosexuality allow Lowenthal to introduce some pointed meditations on sexuality and religion. And a tentative détente with Jonathan, summoned home in the wake of his grandmother's stroke, is adroitly rendered, Jacob, however, sometimes seems too good to be true, and the romantic relationship that emerges late in the story too sketchy and curious to be entirely convincing.

Nevertheless, as an examination of the deforming effect of a family's secrets, and as a portrait of a young man attempting to rediscover his faith without jettisoning his identity, a fresh and provocative first novel.

Michael Bronski (review date 1998)

SOURCE: A review of The Same Embrace, on www.Amazon.com, 1998.

[In the following review, Bronski identifies The Same Embrace's central theme as the struggle to achieve individualism within a collective.]

The endless conflict between sameness and difference is at the heart of Michael Lowenthal's novel The Same Embrace, in which identical twins Jacob and Jonathan battle themselves and one another to become individuals even as they are inextricably linked through genes, family, and history. Empathetically close as children, the brothers begin to separate in their teen years, most decidedly by Jacob's decision to come out and Jonathan's turn to Orthodox Judaism. The conflict of brother against brother, biblical in its resonance yet filled with contemporary image and idiom, is also the grounding that allows Lowenthal to write about his main concern: how humans must create themselves as individuals while remaining part of a larger social fabric. Just as Jacob and Jonathan wrestle with one another over questions of sexuality and religion, The Same Embrace embodies two distinct and not usually conflated genres: the novel of gay identity and the Jewish family novel. Like the brothers' move towards reconciliation, one of the novel's strengths—along with its understanding of the human heart—is its ability to join these themes into a unified, extremely satisfying entirety that both moves and enlightens us.

Gilbert Taylor (review date 19 August 1998)

SOURCE: A review of The Same Embrace, in Booklist, August 19, 1998, pp. 1966-67.

[In the review below, Taylor argues that while the novel is acceptable, it will fail to appeal to a wide audience.]

In this gay-oriented novel of fraternal estrangement, Jonathan Rosenbaum (straight) severs relations with his gay twin, Jacob, after interrupting him in the act. So Jacob's role as family emissary to persuade Jonathan to leave an Israeli yeshiva ends in a fiasco. Back in Boston, Jacob resumes wrestling with his life's dilemmas of coming out to relatives and finding a lover. Debut novelist Lowenthal expresses 24-year-old Jacob's world through flashbacks to his adolescence and family events of Jewish religious ritual and personal sexual awakening, then switches to Jacob's 1990s activities as a gay activist. This telling fills space until the necessary plot resolution: the reappearance of Jonathan. Their grandmother's stroke provides the pretext, and together they reach a deeper recognition of her past as a Holocaust survivor, inducing a greater understanding, though not a reconciliation, between the twins and their opposed lifestyles. [The Same Embrace is a] a predictable work that realizes the standard issues of being gay without offering much appeal beyond its core readership.

Michael Lowenthal with Amazon.com (interview date 1998)

SOURCE: An interview with Michael Lowenthal, by www.Amazon.com, 1998.

[In the following interview Lowenthal discusses his literary influences and his purpose in writing.]

[Amazon.com]: Where are you from? How—if at all—has your sense of place colored your writing?

[Lowenthal]: I grew up mostly in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., which I found to be comfortable but kind of colorless. A lot of people move in and out for Federal government work, and nobody is really "from" there. So I've always had "place envy" I'm jealous of people who have regional accents, family homesteads, all that stuff. I've always wished for some place that I could claim as my own (and then, perhaps, escape from), and I think this influenced me to write about the yearning for belonging.

When and why did you begin writing? When did you first consider yourself a writer?

As early as second grade, according to a homework assignment my mom has saved, I was saying that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I wrote swooning adolescent poetry, and edited my high school newspaper. Then in college I got more serious and majored in creative writing. But I never really believed I'd be able to make a life out of it. Everybody advised me against it. So even now, holding my novel in my hands, I have a sense of amazement and embarrassment, and usually think of myself as "someone who writes" instead of as "a writer." It's a trick I play with myself that allows me to stay sane and keep working despite the pressure.

Who or what has influenced your writing, and in what way? What books have most influenced your life?

I tend to get intensely into one author for a period, then switch to another. To my great shame, I read almost exclusively contemporary fiction writers. Some faves are Tim O'Brien, Annie Proulx, David Long, Bernard Cooper, Michael Cunningham, Grace Paley. I could go on and on. I would say I'm oddly influenced by movies, in...

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