In GIVING UP AMERICA, her second novel, Pearl Abraham continues the project she began with THE ROMANCE READER (1995) of using secular literary art to portray the lives of observant American Jews. The Binet’s is a mixed marriage, the union of a Hasidic bride and an Orthodox groom. “Orthodox Jews incline toward fear,” states Deena’s father. “Hasidim err perhaps on the side of love, which is emotional and therefore more powerful.” The tensions between Daniel and Deena reenact the eighteenth century conflict between Hasidim and Mitnagdim and, more universally, between heart and mind, passion and order. Love becomes the loser.
Most of the story is seen through Deena’s eyes, in mundane details of home, car, and job, by means of short, limpid sentences that record the tropisms of conjugal life. In the separate rhythms by which Deena and Daniel apply primer to the walls of their Brooklyn house, Abraham paints each into a separate corner. Though Deena ceased observing shabbat five years ago, Daniel continues to wear a yarmulke and say his daily prayers. “He was barbaric in his rightness,” thinks Deena.
Jill, a blonde secretary from North Carolina, creates a further fissure in the Binet marriage. Training to compete for Miss America, Jill embodies the temptations of the secular, Gentile culture. GIVING UP AMERICA is set in 1987, and the Constitutional bicentennial serves as a barometer of assimilation. “What then is the American, this new man?” asks the eighteenth century French immigrant St. John de Crevecoeur, in a question appropriated as epigraph to GIVING UP AMERICA. What drives the novel’s plot—and distinguishes it from other stories of marital strife—is the fact that the relationship of Daniel and Deena to America is as problematic, and compelling, as their relationship to each other.