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Melanie is a mother and a lover, middle-aged, eccentric, courageous, and often hilariously unpredictable. She’s also deeply scarred by her internment as a child in Drancy, a Nazi detention camp. Through the humanity and friendship of an English boy, Christopher Lewis, and her self-appointed protector, Jakob Bronski, Melanie managed to survive. Forty years later, Jakob, now a frail, well-known Soviet dissident, and Christopher, a writer who’s never forgotten the young Melanie, reenter her life. Memories of the past, coupled with her husband’s infidelity, upset Melanie’s precarious emotional stability, forcing her to confront the absurdity of trying to balance good and evil, guilt and love, duty and desire. With its finely drawn characters, rich humanity, and rare wit, Emotional Arithmetic is a novel of memory and hope, offering an unforgettable look at how the shadows of the past illuminate the present.
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From Publishers Weekly:
MATT COHEN is the author of 13 novels as well as poetry, short stories, books for children, and works of translation from French to English. Shortly before his death in December 1999, Matt Cohen won the Governor General’s Award for his novel Elizabeth and After and the Harbourfront Festival Prize in honour of his life as a writer. In 1998, he received the Toronto Arts Award for writing.
Veteran Canadian author Cohen's latest novel begins with Benjamin Winters visiting his mother, Melanie, in a Canadian sanatorium where she is recovering from a breakdown caused in part by her husband's philandering?and probably other stresses from her past. During WWII, Melanie was interred at Drancy, a housing complex on the outskirts of Paris used as a detention camp for Jews. Drancy operated as a way station; once there, having your name put on the wrong list meant relocation to a death camp. Now Melanie is about to sponsor noted Soviet dissident Jakob Bronski, whom she knew at Drancy. Accompanying Bronski to Canada is fellow Drancy survivor Christopher Lewis, a writer who has long carried a torch for Melanie. The pair's presence in her home revitalizes Melanie, but it also arouses unexpected reserves of jealousy in her husband. Cohen (Nadine) shifts the point of view from character to character with facility, and his lean, somewhat tart prose avoids melodrama when he describes the war years. Still, the novel is perhaps too low-key to elicit an emotional response from the reader. The three survivors live more in the past than in the present and, as characters, they never transcend the camp. And Benjamin comes off as a spare wheel; his narration bookends the story, but he contributes little to it, outside of having one shadowy affair.
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