Although Sande Boritz Berger’s debut novel The Sweetness (She Writes Press) shows its genesis as a series of stories written as part of graduate study in the Stony Brook Southampton MFA in Creative Writing & Literature Program, the narrative does cohere as an extended work of fiction mainly because of the strength of its two main characters.
Rosha Kaninsky, 8, and Mira Kane, 10 years older, live worlds apart but are destined to meet, the reader hopes. A work of fiction, the story draws on real family history. As Berger was inquiring into the lives of her maternal grandparents who lived in Brooklyn, her 99-year-old aunt showed her a photo of a young girl. It was strange—no one in the family had mentioned her, but here she was. Who was she and what happened to her? Time and place suggested what happened. The time was 1941, the place was Vilna in Lithuania, an early target of the Nazi mission to exterminate the Jews. Berger, her interest piqued not only by the photo but also by her family’s reluctance to talk, started in on research at Yad Vashem, the world’s largest and most prominent museum and archive on the Holocaust. It turned out that the girl was the author’s second cousin. And an imagined tale was born, one that reaches beyond what sometimes restricts ethnic memoirs from becoming wider testimonials.
The Sweetness implicitly commemorates the victims of the Holocaust but also honors non-Jews who helped save lives. The major portion of the novel, however, is set in Brooklyn and captures with humor and coming-of-age pain what it was like to grow up in the war years when parental and societal pressures counted more than they count now. Some of the chapters could stand alone, and probably did stand alone at some point, but Berger’s inspiration was to structure the book as a series of alternating chapters—the ones set in Vilna told in the first person, the ones set in Brooklyn told in the third person. It follows the girls’ separate lives through the end of the war, giving present-tense immediacy to the endangered life far away, and a nostalgic sense to the tale close to home. For the most part the alternating structure works, though the New York parts dominate to an extent that they recall what it was like growing up in an upper-middle class American family of assimilated Jews, the father an immigrant who made it.
The Sweetness should not be thought of as a Holocaust novel. The Shoah informs the chapters on Rosha and her family, but essentially the story centers on Mira and her family and friends. Female readers of a certain age will easily identify with Mira—her artistic aspirations as a fashion designer, her romantic dreams of love and marriage, her intelligence but ready reference to Hollywood movies. Making out in a car with the boy she will soon marry, “she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck just as she’d seen Katherine Hepburn do with Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story.”
Berger, a long-time resident of Bridgehampton, is no stranger to writing, having worked for almost two decades as a scriptwriter and producer. The Sweetness has already garnered attention as an Amazon Breakthrough Novel and as a literary award winner from Jewish organizations. But you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy its authentic depiction of growing up in the ’40s or its touching and tragic representation of ghetto life, which was ended by the roundup. The title comes from a Vilna chapter when young Rosha’s grandmother says that lemons may be sour but tasting them will ensure that she will know and remember sweetness. Rosha muses on what her Bubbe has said: “things can be different yet nearly the same. How everything has an opposite, like the colors black and white, feelings of joy and sadness, the tastes of sweet and sour.” The observation implies the novel’s theme of reconciliation.