Monday, September 3, 2018

Books: "Not Our Kind" By Kitty Zeldis

Not Our Kind
By Kitty Zeldis
Harper/HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover, 352 pages, $26.99; available Tuesday, September 4

Set in New York City in the period right after World War II, a time that was awash with possibility for some people, Not Our Kind by Kitty Zeldis features two young women—one Jewish, one not —and the wholly unexpected consequences of their meeting.

Zeldis combines the glamour of Rules of Civility with a Mad Men-sequel setting that is as vivid as the hats and gloves these characters wear to create a novel that is beautifully rendered by a Brooklyn-based pseudonymous novelist and non-fiction writer of books for children and adults.

One rainy morning two years after the end of World War II, a minor traffic accident fatefully brings together Eleanor Moskowitz and Patricia Bellamy.

Eleanor, a teacher and recent Vassar graduate, is in need of a job. Patricia’s difficult thirteen-year-old daughter Margaux, recovering from polio, needs a private tutor at their Park Avenue home.

Though Eleanor's mother, a hat maker with a shop on Second Avenue, disapproves of the position, she instantly forms a bond with Margaux, even as she understands that the Bellamys' circle seems hostile towards Jews.

Invited to the Bellamys' country home in Connecticut, Eleanor meets Patricia’s unreliable, bohemian brother, Tom, recently returned from the war. The spark between Eleanor and Tom is instant and intense, and Eleanor begins to feel more comfortable in their world, despite her own mother’s warnings that she’s an outsider.

One hot summer evening, a line is crossed, and Eleanor will have to make a decision that has consequences for all of their lives.

Gripping and vividly told, Not Our Kind looks at the lives of two women on the cusp of change, and asks readers how much our identities can and should define us.

The experiences of these two seem to be a gentle precursor to the massive cultural, sociological and technological changes that will happen for the millions of Americans in peacetime.

Not Our Kind is defined by Zeldis’s indelible, fully realized characters, making this a very captivating read.

Kitty Zeldis On The Inspiration Behind Her Novel Not Our Kind:

Kitty Zeldis.
The idea for my novel Not Our Kind was born at Vassar College, where I was student in the 1970s. There was enough visible diversity to make a Jewish girl feel she was not alone—I encountered plenty of Jews, both students and faculty. Yet while I didn’t experience much overt anti-Semitism, I was always keenly aware that Vassar had historically excluded people like me—I was the “not our kind” of my eventual novel’s title. I could feel it in the manners, the mores, the very air around me. Vassar was both WASP creation and WASP bastion, and I knew I didn’t entirely belong. In fact, it was at Vassar that I acquired the nickname that became my pen name. I had commented to a friend that my Hebrew first name and Polish surname weren’t good fits for the environment and that I should have been called Katherine Anne Worthington; he jokingly responded by calling me Kitty. It’s a name that stuck.
But back to anti-Semitism at Vassar. Although my freshman roommate casually noted, “Well, your people did murder our Lord,” a remark for which I then had no ready reply, it was the more passive, almost nonchalant anti-Semitism that stung most. I remember an English lit class in which we’d been reading Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and I said that I found the stereotypical characterizations of Jews in their poetry—greedy, money grubbing, hook nosed etc.— upsetting. A fellow student raised his hand and said, “Oh, well, that’s what everyone was like back then.” As if that should have cancelled out my discomfort, and made it, somehow, all right. And then there was the memorable evening that I went to hear a lecture on 18th century Rococo painting that was to be given by a well-regarded scholar visiting from Germany. Before he came to the lectern, someone from the Art History department read a short bio by way of introduction. I don’t know what I expected to hear, but it surely wasn’t that during World War II, this man had been a high ranking official—a commander, a general, I don’t recall which—in the military. A Nazi, in other words, though the word was not actually said.
It felt like my cheeks had burst into flame. I stood up and in my haste to leave, tripped over the feet of the people still seated in my row. The next day, I paid a visit to the German department; by then I had learned that they had been the ones to issue the invitation. I shared my feelings with the young professor from Bavaria who was the chairman. He was very handsome, with dark hair and eyes, and he seemed quite perplexed by my response. “We had no idea this would offend anyone,” he said earnestly. Well guess what? It did.
That was a defining moment, the memory of which lived inside me for decades, and it helped spark Not Our Kind, a novel I’ve described as Gentlemen’s Agreement, only with two women at the center. The anti-Semitism of the post-war period in America found expression in the quotas imposed by colleges (Vassar would have been one of those) and universities, as well as the apartment buildings, hotels, and entire towns which proudly called themselves restricted. This was the landscape I sought to construct and evoke as I wrote.
But anti-Semitism is more the by-product than the theme of Not Our Kind. I also wanted to explore how Jews made their way in the non-Jewish world, because that was my story too. Unlike the strictly Orthodox who remain sheltered within and nurtured by the confines of their communities, my protagonist Eleanor Moskowitz seeks a place in a larger world that often rebuffs and excludes her. How does she find happiness? And with whom? And what of the Bellamys—the Park Avenue family through which Eleanor’s initiation takes place? How do they reevaluate their own received prejudices when faced with Eleanor as a unique individual, and not the stereotype they have never had reason before to question? Though this story takes place in 1947, so many of the issues with which Eleanor and Patricia grapple still resonate and I hope Not Our Kind will give those issues a refreshed and renewed sense of urgency for today’s readers.

Kitty Zeldis On The Fashion In Not Our Kind:

“I’ve always loved clothes and fashion, so it was no surprise that these topics are given such ample play in my novel new, Not Our Kind. But the suits, slacks, frocks and coats described are not simply window-dressing; they are integral to the story, used to create a cultural and historical context as well as being indicators of class, status and character. To adapt the old adage, clothes do indeed make the woman, and the sartorial choices made by Eleanor, Patricia, Irina and Margaux help define and delineate their respective natures. Clothing, ultimately, is a vector that suggests identity and aspiration, reality and fantasy.
Then there are the hats—designed by Irina, worn and commented on by Eleanor, Patricia and others—which are in a category all their own. Today, a woman wearing a hat is an exception not a rule; hats are strictly optional, and tend to be worn in very hot weather (sun protection) or very cold (warmth). But in the 1940’s, a woman’s outfit was not considered complete without one; her hat was the finishing touch that pulled together the rest of her look. This particular bit of history dovetailed nicely with my themes and goals for the book. Irina, the immigrant without education or money, still has something that rich women can admire—her taste and skill. Eleanor straddles her mother’s world and that of Patricia, who represents something she can only aspire to, and never attain. In order to develop the idea, I did research into how hats were made and sold. I looked at scads of hats, in museums, books and on-line. I believe the result made the texture of the novel more convincing and more resonant, and think women readers will feel the same way.”


Kitty Zeldis in conversation with author Caroline Leavitt
Upper East Side
150 E 86th ST
New York, NY 10028

(212) 369-2180

8415 3rd AVE
Brooklyn, NY 11209

*Fiction Book Club event

No comments:

Post a Comment