Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 February 1997)
SOURCE: A review of Swimming Across the Hudson, in Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 1997, p. 244.
[In the following review, the critic praises the subject matter of Henkin's Swimming Across the Hudson, but complains that the novel does not do the subject justice.]
Henkin gives an overly self-serious treatment to a potentially engrossing debut about an adopted son coming to terms with Jewish identity and the many varieties of family.
Narrator Ben Suskind and his younger brother Jonathan, both living in San Francisco, have long accepted the fact of their adoption, but that doesn't mean that relations with their Orthodox Jewish parents are smooth. Their father, old-fashioned and scholarly, has yet to accept Jonathan's homosexuality, while their mother clumsily leaves condoms on his bedside table when he visits. Meanwhile, both parents wish that 31-year-old Ben would move east and marry a nice Jewish girl instead of living with Jenny, a public defender and single mother. When Ben gets a letter from his birth mother, Susan, his parents are forced to tell him the truth: His birth parents were not, as he has always believed, Jewish—and Ben, until now an indifferent Jew, is shocked. Then Susan, escaping her troubled marriage and the pain left by another son's death, comes to California to establish a relationship with Ben. While the two don't immediately click, the experience moves Ben to reconsider his religious and familial identity. He attends synagogue for the first time in years and incorporates Jewish ritual into his life. This reinvigorated Judaism doesn't sit well with Jenny, however, who has problems of her own as she contemplates representing a rapist in court. With the future of their affair in doubt, Ben becomes preoccupied with family history. Curious about his brother's identity, he secretly travels to Chicago to impersonate Jonathan and seek out his brother's own birth mother—a desperate act that brings all of his relationships to a crisis.
Henkin sets up intriguing family dynamics, but the far too earnest tone and sketchy characterizations fail to bring Ben's dilemmas to life. A welcome message of tolerance and inclusiveness unfortunately finds only tepid expression here.