Jessamyn Hope of her new novel Safekeeping, which launches tonight at Book Court in Brooklyn.“I’m so happy with the cover. I really didn’t want it to be some woman’s sandals in the sand,” says
Over coffee at Yonah Schimmel, Hope explained that because she’s a female author and her book involves romance, she was concerned it would be labeled “chick lit” — a term that doesn’t begin to encompass the expansive themes in her saga of six characters who meet at a kibbutz in Israel in 1994. The characters — including an old Zionist Socialist, an Israeli teenager injured in a terrorist attack, and a beautiful Soviet émigré — are all in search of identity and safe harbor from the storm of their personal crises. Interspersed with their stories is the history of a medieval brooch that provides glimpses into turbulent moments in Jewish history.
Yonah Schimmel proved to be an apt meeting place: Hope, dressed in a bright red top with her glossy black hair sweeping her shoulders, told us the space is reminiscent of a fictional bakery in the novel – a favorite place of the drug addict, Adam, who grew up in the Lower East Side. Her coffee grew cold as we discussed how her own search for identity (she was born to an Italian mother and South African father and grew up in Montreal) and life in NYC inspired the main themes in Safekeeping.
“Because I had this very diverse background, I longed for a feeling of home — to know what it means to completely belong somewhere,” said Hope, who has called New York home for the past 20 years. “I think that every single character, including the brooch, is looking for a place where they fully belong.”
Though more in the background, New York does make an appearance in the novel. Both Adam, who lost much of his family in the Holocaust but has never left the five boroughs before his trip to Israel, and the émigré, Ulya, whose knowledge of NYC originates from a high-end magazine, love and long for the city.
“There’s the gritty reality of New York as it’s expressed through Adam, and the dream of New York, which people experience all over the world, expressed through Ulya. I’ve experienced both as someone who wanted to move to New York and as someone who moved to New York,” said Hope. “New York is the opposite of the kibbutz. New York is a place you can live autonomously and anonymously and pursue your own passions without pressure to belong to a community.”
The novel’s primary setting, though, was inspired by Hope’s time on her cousin’s kibbutz in Israel. Joan Leegant, the author of Where You Go, feels that Hope’s portrayal of the kibbutz serves as a microcosm for the “powerful tension in Jewish history, and particularly in modern Israeli history, between the demands of the collective and the needs of the individual. Should we live just for ourselves or for the group? Whose needs should be put first? How do we be ourselves within the context of a tribe?” Hope explained that she experienced this struggle herself: “I think a lot of minorities can relate to that. On the one hand, I just want to be Jessamyn but, on the other hand, you feel a responsibility towards your minority group.”
Both the kibbutz and brooch highlight the struggle of the Jewish people. “One of the greatest stories of human perseverance is the history of the Jews. They have managed to thrive despite incredible hardship,” said Hope. She also wanted to explore perseverance and willpower on a more universal level, which she does through her characters – half of whom aren’t Jewish. “Many people are able to carry on and actually build lives with even more love and meaning on top of loss. There’s such beauty and dignity in that and I wanted to capture that in my book.”
Many of the struggles that the characters battle against stem from Hope’s own encyclopedia of experiences that she uses as a springboard. Claudette suffers from severe OCD, a mental illness that Hope also experienced. The inspiration behind two of her male characters stems from men she knew personally – one of whom was an alcoholic and crack addict, another based on a boy she fell in love with at the kibbutz whose hearing and eyesight were damaged by a terrorist attack.
Many of the obstacles faced by Hope’s characters – both within their minds and in the outside world – are legacies of the past. At one point during our conversation, she brought up William Faulkner’s idea that if a stone is thrown into the water, the stone may no longer be visible, but ripples continue to expand farther and farther out. “I do believe that on some level all of us behave because of what our parents, our grandparents or our ancestors experience that affect us on a fundamental level,” said Hope. We can also inherit a sense of guilt, as Adam does. “There’s an inherited guilt that he has for having it so much easier and feeling bad about his own problems when his grandfather had it so much harder.”
Overall, Safekeeping is a celebration of how many of the characters are able to persevere despite these inherited challenges. This optimism was influenced by Hope’s own coming of age in 1994. “I felt that I was going to inherit this world that promised to be so much better than the last century, which we all agree was horrendous,” she said. But Hope was in the Financial District on Sept. 11, 2001 — a day that so emphatically proved her optimism to be an illusion. She chose not to address this sense of disillusionment in the novel because “there’s this pathos in the reader when they read about this optimism. They know it didn’t turn out better.”
Though another century of issues and personal strife has begun, Safekeeping is a story that exhibits ways we can push forward through our own strangling legacies and find home. Or, perhaps, find solace in love (though not the angst-y, sappy type found in dreaded chick lit). “The book is about how amazing love is, and how painful love is because you get to have it for only a short time,” says Hope, “That, in part, gives it its beauty.”