Review of Secret Love by Bart Schneider (Viking Penguin, 275 pages, $25.95, 2001).
When it comes to creating dramatic tension, interracial romance almost always trumps interfaith romance in American fiction. Bart Schneider’s second novel is no exception. Race is the primary source of conflict in the ill-fated romance between Jake Roseman, a Jewish civil rights lawyer in 1960’s San Francisco, and Nisa, a biracial actress and protester. But there is also the fact that Jake is middle-aged, too old really for the young Nisa. He has teenage kids and is still recovering from his first wife’s suicide. His elderly father, who lives with him, is an unreconstructed racist. For all these reasons, Jake doesn’t feel he can bring Nisa home to meet his kids.
At first glance, the subplots do not hinge on religion, either. Nisa’s friend Peter is a gay white actor. He falls in love with a closeted gay black man, Simon, who happens to also be a client of attorney Jake Roseman, Nisa’s lover. The plot revolves around this foursome–black and white, gay and straight, lover and beloved. Yet religious differences are percolating just beneath the surface in all of these relationships. Peter is Jewish, but feels alienated from his religion. Simon happens to be a talented Gospel singer and the son of a famous preacher, a son expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. In torment over his homosexuality, he has a violent break with the church, and tries to become a black Muslim.
Meanwhile, Jake, while not an observant Jew, identifies strongly with Jewish culture. He often refers to his own impressive nose, and fancies himself a sort of Jewish tough guy, someone who might have been a boxer in the days when Jews were boxers. Instead, he is fighting for the downtrodden, in the streets with his megaphone, rallying the crowds with eloquent sermons and Talmudic reasoning. He stands in contrast to the Jewish archetype played by his father–an erudite violinist and teacher who never seemed to understand his son’s love for politics and engagement with the outside world.
Schneider writes with considerable skill. His characters are compelling and complex, and the issues confronted are both subtle and important. And yet, from the point of view of interfaith families, the subliminal message is disturbing. All three of the interfaith romances are doomed. (Jake’s first wife, the suicide, was Christian). Maybe that’s simply the way the plot unfolded for the writer. Maybe this book is driven by autobiographical events that happened to work out this way. But the perceived effect, intended or not, is that relationships across these boundaries are futile, or worse. One cannot help thinking of all of the early novels depicting lesbian relationships, in which these transgressing women met tragic endings.
Schneider skillfully depicts San Francisco in the civil rights era, with all of the interracial and interfaith anguish of that time. I am still waiting for novels that depict the current reality of the joy and richness of interfaith families.