Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Zametkin Hobson

Have you read Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Zametkin Hobson No? Well, you should read it! Everyone should read it! Once upon a time, lots of people did - it spent five months at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List after it published in 1947 - but it has since fallen out of favor. I'd never heard of it until a friend picked it for our book club's February selection, spurring probably the best discussion we've ever had.

The novel's current lack of visibility might be due in part to its Amazon blurb: The plot of GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT concerns the experiences of a young Gentile writer who poses as a Jew in order to secure material on anti-Semitism for a series of magazine articles. A thesis novel concerning the social and economic aspects of anti-Semitism in American life.

No, really, it's good! I wrote all over my copy of the book, and then typed up my notes. And, yet, it was fun.

It's a quick read, easy, but not shallow (except a little right at the end). And it's non-threatening, too, for a book with such a point. The main character is an ally (not prone to some of the major prejudices of his day) which casts the reader into the same role and allows us to hear hard truths and appreciate them while thinking ourselves exempt or hidden.

This is one of those books that has stuck with me and I find myself using some of its figures of speech in my everyday life weeks after completing the read. Flick, tap.

The novel is about a California-based widower and writer who gets a job with a major weekly magazine in New York City and relocates his family. The first people he meets are his new editor - who gives him the assignment of writing a series on antisemitism - and the editor's niece - who inspired the idea for the assignment and becomes the love interest/second main character. The writer gets the idea that in order to write convincingly and interestingly about antisemitism, he must experience it first-hand. So he introduces himself to everyone he meets as a Jew and undergoes a rapid transformation.

The novel deals not only with antisemitism but also with other forms of prejudice, including racism and sexism. I especially enjoyed some of the nascent feminism, as the author gently drew us along with contemporary lines like, "I'm having people over tonight. A couple of girls and people." How great is that? The role of women's work in the running of a household provides an interesting background, as do the the characters' remarks about "womanish softness" of thought and "a vague resentment that it's a man's world."

But the parts that really stuck with me were about antisemitism and are equally relevant today, with our own various -isms. Prejudice comes in little "flicks" and "taps." “Rarely was the circumstance so arranged that you could fight back.” "They gave you at once the wound and the burden of proper behavior toward it.” There's a lot of discussion about “the complacence of essentially decent people about prejudice” and the question of whether it's gauche or required to make a scene and speak out against prejudice whenever you encounter it (even if it's at a formal dinner party with an important client).

All this unfolds as part of a love story between the writer and his editor's niece. She inspired the assignment and is passionately antisemitic . . . but perhaps she
has a different understanding of what antisemitism is and means and how best to respond. What brought the couple together eventually drives a wedge between them.

If you read - or have read - this one, please let me know; I'd love to discuss it with you! And if it doesn't sound like something you're willing to read, the novel inspired a movie by the same name, starring Gregory Peck.

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@Barrie Summy


Sarah Laurence said...

I've never heard of this book, but it sounds interesting. Growing up half Jewish with a surname that didn't sound Jewish, new people would sometimes say general anti Semitic things around me and be surprised when I objected.

Sarahlynn said...

I really wish this book were more dated and less relevant than it still is.

Barrie said...

This book sounds really interesting. I love reading books that were published back in the day. Thanks for reviewing!

Sarahlynn said...

Barrie, me, too! When I read novels that are set in the past, I spend an inordinate amount of time wondering what bits of modern thinking are corrupting the story. Reading this book, which was both written and set during the 1940's, I was shocked at how much of it felt very "now." I was occasionally jarred out of this familiarity when, for example, someone lights up a cigarette on an airplane (which takes 12 hours to get from California to NYC, btw).

Linda McLaughlin said...

I'd never heard of this book either, at least that I could recall, but it sounds very interesting and worth reading. And it's even available for my Kindle! :)

Sarahlynn said...

I was so sure that an ebook wouldn't be available that I ordered a used copy from Amazon (my local library consortium didn't have many copies). Then I was surprised to learn that a Nook book was available! I'm glad the publisher is interested in keeping this one alive.