If you’ve missed contributing writer Elaine Durbach from the pages of NJJN, you’re in luck. No, she’s not planning a return to the newspaper, but she’s found other ways to spend her time, like writing her newly self-published novel, “Roundabout.” It’s a story about love lost and found, a page turner worth the read. One of the central characters is so well drawn — with his leathery skin, long white ponytail, and bomber jacket — that I could recognize him on the street.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Also, I am a highly biased reader, so let’s put that up front. The novel was published this summer, and Durbach, who also was NJJN’s former Central NJ bureau chief, will be reading from “Roundabout” at The Book House in Millburn on Oct. 27.
The story opens with Sally Paddington grieving her beloved, Felix Barnard, during the early morning hours. He has died unexpectedly overnight in his sleep, and other than having the body removed, Sally has yet to make any calls notifying friends and family. They were in their 70s, finally living together in a ramshackle cottage near the beach in Kalk Bay, South Africa.
The text weaves between present and past, as Sally sorts through the artifacts of Felix’s life and attempts to get their home ready to sell. She tries to preserve the whisper that remains of him. “The dip in his pillow is still there,” she notices, careful not to disturb it — along with the way the blankets are arranged on their bed. And she thinks back to their first meeting.
A dancer, Sally is the sheltered daughter of Holocaust survivors, and she meets the dashing — and non-Jewish — Felix, who has arrived on a motorcycle, just back from adventures in Europe, carrying a battered leather backpack, while both are registering for classes at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa.
The attraction is magnetic, and the romance sizzles. Though interrupted for long periods by marriages to other people, it ultimately stretches across decades and oceans.
Like much contemporary fiction written by Jewish authors, the novel is suffused with the way we live our lives as Jews. Sally calls her mother Imma (though her father is “Pops”); her comfort foods are borscht and apricot rugelach; and her reference points are fundamentally Jewish, like idealizing an “Eshet Chayil,” a woman of valor, or praying that a loved one’s memory will serve as a blessing for the living.
Moreover, Sally suffers the trauma of a second-generation Holocaust survivor. She’s perpetually terrified that the people she cares for will suddenly be gone, a fear she internalized from her parents, “mindful always that life can be cruel, that people you love can disappear, without warning, be taken, vanish, leave you for no good reason at all.”
Felix also struggled with his own very different traumatic loss, and their respective scars took a toll on their relationship. As Sally mourns her partner, she follows the arc of their decades in and out of each other’s lives, gaining insight and, eventually, replacing pain, insecurity, and resentment with understanding.
In some ways, Sally mirrors Durbach, who attended Rhodes University, lived in Cape Town, and came to the United States (New York) in her early 20s. And there was a college boyfriend. In fact, in conversation with NJJN, Durbach acknowledged that meeting up with him on a visit to Cape Town about 40 years later was the inspiration for the book. “We became better friends than before, more able to talk really openly, and that started me thinking about how connections can evolve as we change,” she said.
Capetown also has a hold on Durbach’s heart. “It is surely one of the most glorious places in the world, full of evocative, story-worthy settings, along with its problematic political past — and present — difficulties,” she said.
But that’s about where the similarities end. Durbach, 66, claims to have two left feet, and she’s never spent much time in Kalk Bay beyond just driving through. She was surprised when “the story chose to put itself there,” she said, adding, “now [I] can’t wait to spend time there.”
Durbach lives in Maplewood with her husband Marshall, who, like Felix, rides a motorcycle, and their son, Gabe. The only borscht she likes is her husband’s, but they all eat rugelach. “Who doesn’t love rugelach?” she said.
But although her own grandparents were from Latvia, not Poland, and moved to South Africa long before the Holocaust, Durbach had an early education on the impact the Holocaust can have on survivors and their children.
“My best friend as a kid was the only child of a European couple who changed their name and hid their Jewish background from her, in an attempt to shield her from the anti-Semitism they’d known,” she said.
And of course, she had another source: “The years of interviewing survivors for NJJN, that experience, and the impact in the second generation, felt very vivid for me,” she said. “It’s always intrigued me how people open their hearts and trust life, or don’t, after experiencing such horror and loss.”
If you go
What: Elaine Durbach reads from her novel, “Roundabout”
Where: The Book House, Millburn
When: Sunday, Oct. 27, 4 p.m.
Cost: Free; for more information, contact email@example.com or 973-564-6262.