REVIEW: Sadie in Love by Rochelle Distelheim
In her warmly comical and deliciously entertaining debut novel, master storyteller Rochelle Distelheim sweeps us back to 1913 and the world of struggling Jewish immigrants in New York City’s Lower East Side.
Sadie Schuster—fortyish, plumpish, a suffragette, and recently widowed—spends more time now talking to her late husband, Fivel, than when he was alive. Sadie keeps Fivel informed of her daily activities—especially her pursuit of a husband—because “An empty bed is a cold place for a hot-blooded woman.” A lover of ballroom dancing, the moving pictures, and night-school English words, Sadie’s true talent lies in the magic love knots she artfully crafts for lonely, unwitting, immigrants willing to purchase hope wrapped in a schmattah for fifty cents.
Selling love knots while seeking love, Sadie consults with her magic spirits to woo Herschel—the muscled ice peddler who reads poetry and pines for his newly departed wife. Her daughter, Yivvy, sells secondhand, possibly “pinched” tchotchkes in her antique shop and plans to marry the Irish cop on the beat. Enter, Ike Tabatnik, the “Dance King of Riga, Latvia,” just off the boat and ready to take on America—and Sadie’s heartstrings. Comedy and chaos follow.
A stunning confession, following the wedding of one of her love knot clients—which begins with one groom and ends with another—pushes Sadie to make a surprising choice. She then throws herself at the mercy of her magic spirits, asking them to do quickly for her what they have been doing for her customers—before it’s too late.
Dear Ms. Distelheim,
Sadie’s lovely face beckoned me to look into this book and once I’d read the blurb, I wanted to read it. Sadie is a delightful character, a real character who is determined to arrange things just as she wants them to be. Reading her story took me into a new world, that of early 20th century immigrants making new lives for themselves in New York City.
Since Sadie’s is the only POV we see, it’s a good thing I like her. She is tough and resilient. It was Sadie who nudged Fivel into leaving Poland for America. Now on her own, she manages the apartment building they bought just before Fivel’s death – he died after they bought it but before the mortgage was paid off. She also makes love knots to bring couples together though getting all the needed American paperwork is up to them!
Sadie is not one who wants to sleep alone though. It’s not that Fivel was a bad husband, he was just not one to talk or much for passion. This time she wants to be the one to pick. Will her efforts to interest and encourage widower Herschel, the ice peddler with a penchant for Yiddish poetry, pay off?
I could hear Sadie as a bit of a cross between Barbra Streisand as Dolly Levi and Nancy Walker as Ida Morgenstern. There’s not much that gets past Sadie and she usually gets what she wants. There might be an exception made in the case of the beau her daughter Yivvy, who’s never been interested in making an effort about men, seems to be determined on. Sadie’s upstairs boarder – what is Mitzi up to? – helps with makeup tips but it’s mainly up to Sadie to snag the man who has caught her interest.
I wasn’t quite thrilled with the romance Sadie has her heart set on. Herschel is a tough nut to crack and more than once I was afraid Sadie would need to subvert herself and hide who she really is and what she is passionate about. What does Herschel think about votes for women? In the end, I think everything is okay but honestly, I wasn’t sure as I finished the story. It’s more a HFN than a ‘call the rabbi and book the New Hennington Hall” even if all your events can be catered there. I also got tired of reading about Sadie’s fingernail and the spirits she calls on. As a snapshot of life in the Lower East Side, it’s fantastic. As a romance, ‘eh, not quite so much. B