You Are Not What We Expected

Astoria. May 2020. 192p. ISBN 9781487007348. pap. $16.95. F
This collection of 13 interrelated stories primarily follows the Levine family—grandparents Elaine and Oscar, Uncle Isaac, and the children Adam and Ava. Set in Thornhill and up and down the Bathurst corridor of Toronto, the stories move back and forth in time, sometimes focusing on the Levines at various stages in their lives and sometimes on narratives tangentially related to them. As in the Israeli television series Shtisel, characters confront the clash between religious tradition and the modern world and between orthodox and assimilated Jews. Ludwig explores the theme of leave-taking: after surviving a difficult childhood, Ava enlists in the Israeli army; Isaac leaves Los Angeles and returns to Toronto; in the title story, Rhina, an Australian, flees to Israel after her divorce; Ava and Adam stay with their grandparents after their mother runs off to Las Vegas. Ludwig is particularly adept at describing her younger characters; these kids are complicated, angry, mean, alienated, bullies, and bullied.
VERDICT Readers familiar with Toronto will appreciate the insider’s portrayal and even recognize specific buildings and blocks, but all readers can enjoy Ludwig’s (Holding My Breath) writing. She shows great empathy for her characters, even when they behave badly.
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