In the Image, Dara Horn’s first novel, having begun with the grief of the protagonist Leora over the death of her closest friend in high school, Naomi Landsmann, discloses, mostly through images, the connection Leora and other characters in the story have with their significance as Jews. If there is a flaw in the novel, it is not in the characterization, which is complex, nor in the story, which is intriguing, but in the abundant coincidences which permit predictability and rhetoric to tilt the story a bit like ballast unevenly placed.
Bill Landsmann, Naomi’s grandfather, contacts Leora and presents her and her parents with a slide show illustrating early Jewish history. Since her time with Landsmann reanimates her grief over Naomi, Leora only reluctantly returns when he invites her. After several of his slide shows for her, featuring locations of Jewish communities around the world, Landsmann takes her to East Mountain, a nature preserve in the New Jersey town in which they live, where he shows her the grave of his father Nadav, who committed suicide in 1946 after emigrating to America with his son. Leora finds herself beginning to be lured by the pictures in Landsmann’s windowlike slides.
The first of the novel’s many coincidences starts with Jason, Leora’s lover in college. His family, it turns out, lives in the same town as Leora’s and his father manages the zoo on East Mountain where Landsmann took Leora. Further, Jason’s feelings about his Jewish background changed from indifference to a Hassidic commitment after he visited Jerusalem, leading him to change his name to Yehudah, to break up with Leora, and to marry a like-minded woman, Rivka. Leora runs into him and his wife in Costco, where she discovers that Jason has abandoned medical school and his aspiration to help the elderly and now works in his father-in-law’s diamond business in New York.
To illuminate coincidence as connection, the novel shifts from Leora’s point of view to that of Bill Landsmann. His father, a victim of shell shock in World War I whose his business in Vienna failed and whose wife was in a mental hospital, moved to Amsterdam, taking with him his son Wilhelm, as Bill Landsmann was then called. Thrown out of one school, reviled in another, violently neglected by Nadav, and not fluent in Dutch, Wilhelm skulked about as an outsider, no better than a barbarian who peers into the lighted windows of those he lives among. In this way he is like Leora, who does the same thing. He also resembles her in that the elaborately detailed doll cabinets on display in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam fascinate him as much as Leora’s dollhouse later fascinates her when she shares its pleasures with his granddaughter Naomi.
The story returns to Leora after college. She is writing for a magazine in New York, spending her Friday nights in bars with her itinerant roommates looking for “live-in boyfriends” or at Sabbath dinners with her synagogue acquaintances looking for “live-in husbands.” This unappetizing lifestyle results in her enduring weekends alone in her apartment on Amsterdam Avenue, as isolated as Landsmann had been in his father’s apartment in Amsterdam itself. She has become an outsider as Landsmann was, and if he equated this with being a “barbarian,” Leora might well do the same. In college, Leora found her friend Jessica’s excitement over the suicide of a fellow student barbaric, and she begins to wonder whether treating events as an observer rather than a participant is not “much more pleasant”—that is, to be a barbarian may be better than to be an initiate in the pain of others.
Then, while researching the discovery of a skull called “Amsterdam Avenue Man,” said to be the “missing link” from an anomalous period fifty thousand years in the past, Leora finds a mousetrap disguised as a dollhouse (suggesting, perhaps, the temptation and danger to her in entering a world she had only looked at from outside before). Immediately afterward, she finds a set of tefillin (several small boxes containing Hebrew prayers on parchment and meant to be strapped on a man’s forehead and arms). The tefillin are one hundred years old and were found at the bottom of New York Harbor, thrown overboard by immigrant Jews drawn, as it were, to the dollhouse mousetrap of America.
In Leora’s case, the salvaged tefillin may be, like the Amsterdam Avenue skull, a “missing link” to her own past as a Jew. She begins to explore this possibility when, on the pretext of writing an article on the drug culture of Amsterdam for her magazine, she attends a conference on Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677), the philosopher who was expelled from the Jewish community...
(The entire section is 1915 words.)