A Suitable Husband is a suitable title for a novel set in a time and place where the well-being of an entire family depends on the elder daughter finding a good match, and S.B.Lerner has created a wonderfully complex setup and a wonderfully complex hero to go with it.
We’re in 1936 Poland with the Leiber family, poor Jewish Poles. Bianca is a bright girl who’s about to graduate from high school and hopes to go to university. However, she has a wastrel father and a mother who works day and night to generate the meager income necessary to feed Bianca And her younger sister and brother. The Leibers are always behind on the rent, and the landlord is always threatening eviction, and his threats are not empty ones
Bianca’s mother brings a Yente around right after graduation. A young doctor sees a speech Bianca makes just before commencement and falls in love with her. He’s studying in Vienna because medical schools are closed to Jews as anti-semitism rises, but plans to return and practice once his studies are complete. (Pre-WWII Jews don’t know what we know, so they still think of themselves as Polish as much as Jewish and believe they’ll be able to adapt. )
Bianca, of course, resists her mother’s efforts. The doctor is kind, but dull, and, though not an old man, is no youngster either. Plus, he’s in Vienna for the time being, which is both convenient for her impulses and frustrating for her mother. Bianca finds comfort among friends in a young Zionist group. The British still control what’s called Palestine at the time, and many Jews see this as a potential homeland for the diaspora. They talk of Kibbutzes and communal living and share songs and even weeks of “wilderness” training for life in the new land. Arabs? No problem. They’ll inhabit the land the Arabs don’t want and drain the swamps and make the deserts bloom and live in harmony with all. As a further obstacle to her mother’s plans, Bianca falls in love with one of the leaders of the group, a wild and visionary and romantic named Wolf. Such a contrast to the pedestrian doctor who offers security but no fire.
Lerner’s Bianca is quite self-centered. In true adolescent fashion, she’s insensitive to her mother’s horrendous struggles. If you’re like me, you’ll groan and yell “come on girl, wake up.” When personal, economic, and historical realities finally force her to pay attention to the big picture, her response will startle and amaze.
Lerner gives us a look at a society moving from a traditional to a modern world, from a world at peace to one moving toward one of the most horrific conflicts in ever. Yet, with all its research and sense of history A Suitable Husband is an intensely personal novel that captures the dilemma of a dynamic young girl caught in the throes of historical and family conflict and tells the gripping story of how she chooses to deal with painful necessities. A fresh piece of writing about a period that is too often treated with cliches.