This thought-provoking and often moving novel touches on so many of today’s hot-button issues: gay marriage, the AIDS epidemic and its aftermath, Israeli-Palestinian politics, and the complicated results of acts of terror.
For me, though, the strident political preachiness often overwhelmed the human elements of the story, which is a shame. I tried so hard to become immersed in this book, and while I truly felt for some of the characters, sticking with it became a real chore.
Backing up… in All I Love and Know, partners Matthew and Daniel have been happily involved and living together in Northampton, Massachusetts for four years. Matthew fled the New York party scene after the AIDS-related death of his best friend, and Daniel represented to him a calmer, healthier way of loving and living. All that changes when they receive an awful phone call: Daniel’s twin brother Joel and his wife Ilana are dead, victims of a suicide bomber in a Jerusalem cafe. Joel and Ilana leave behind two small children, and it was their wish that if anything were to happen to them, Daniel would have custody of the children and take them away from Israel.
Matthew and Daniel fly to Jerusalem with Daniel’s parents, to mourn and bury their dead, and to face the bureaucracy of the Israeli family courts. Ilana’s parents, Holocaust survivors, want the children also, and even though custody was stipulated in the will, it’s the courts that have the final say. Will they grant custody to a gay American couple against the grandparents’ wishes?
While dealing with the custody issues, Daniel is also deeply in shock and mourning, and he routinely pushes aside all attempts at comfort offered by Matthew. He is so torn up inside that he has no capacity for giving or receiving love or tenderness, and their relationship begins to unravel even as they start a completely new life as the parents of orphaned children.
Let me just stop here for a moment and say that Matthew is an absolute angel who gets the totally rotten end of a sad and difficult situation. He is not Jewish, has no fondness for Israel, never intended to be a parent — and yet he absolutely rises to the occasion, taking these two sad and difficult children into his life and charging full steam ahead into the role of primary caregiver. He does everything for these kids, pours his heart into creating a home for them, providing for them, and loving them. He takes it upon himself, with no encouragement from Daniel, to learn Hebrew, just to make things easier for the kids. And yet, the poor guy is constantly referred to as shallow and vain. He’s apparently incredibly good-looking, but Daniel and the other family members seem to use this against him, treating his looks as a symptom of being all surface.
Matthew is constantly the outsider — in Israel and in the family. For expediency’s sake, Daniel excludes Matthew from the legal process involving the children, and time and time again reminds him that he has no real standing whatsoever. When things blow up in the relationship, Daniel is quick to remind Matthew that his name is not on the mortgage, not on the house title, not on any document related to the children. Matthew is the one who created a home for this makeshift family — but he’s the one who’s kicked to the curb when things go wrong, with no protection or recourse.
While Daniel’s grief is palpable, it’s hard to like him as a character or to sympathize with his behavior toward Matthew. The story feels somewhat unbalanced in this regard, as I found it a real challenge to relate to Daniel’s actions or thoughts. The children, especially 6-year-old Gal, are prickly and difficult and full of pain that comes out in all sorts of hard-to-deal-with ways — but this part of the story is really so very touching. How does a small child understand loss of this magnitude? Gal’s little brother is just one year old at the time of their parents’ death — how does an infant experience bereavement and express sorrow?
While the relationships in the book are well-developed, the plot itself gets a little tangled at times. From the synopsis, you’d expect the custody battle to be the main issue at the heart of the story… but it’s not. Custody is resolved relatively easily about halfway through the book, and then the story moves on, so then what was all the custody drama even about?
Another confusing element is the timeline of the story. It was not clear at the outset, but this book is set in 2003 – 2004, in a political reality, both in the US and in the Middle East, that is somewhat different than today’s. It would have been helpful to know this from the beginning. That said, the time frame of the book absolutely informs the legal challenges faced by Matthew and Daniel, as the book takes place right as Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
If this novel had focused solely on the relationships and family dynamics, I probably would have loved it. The aftermath of grief and loss is portrayed in all its various shades and nuances, manifested differently in the bereaved twin and the devastated children. The author’s politics, however, intrude often and loudly, and this ubiquitous, one-sided, and harsh tone is — for me, at any rate — a turn-off that pulled me out of the story time and time again. There’s very little room left for differing viewpoints or shades of grey, and the result is a book that insists that there’s only one stance that’s legitimate, one way of thinking that’s correct.
As I said earlier, I see it as a real shame. I was so turned off by the insistent political statements of the characters that I was often tempted to put the book down. What kept me going was the human element. I cared about these characters, these two lovely men and the two sad children in their care. I wanted to know more, and wanted to see how they came through this terrible ordeal. Ultimately, I’m glad I continued and was pleased overall with the story of the characters and how they and their relationships evolved — but at the same time, I do have a hard time recommending the book wholeheartedly due to the issues I’ve already mentioned.
Title: All I Love and Know
Author: Judith Frank
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: July 15, 2014
Length: 422 pages
Genre: Adult contemporary fiction