King of the Class
by Gila Green
What would you do if your husband, partner, fiancé startled you out of plans for your future? Not by having an affair with another person, but by having an affair with a new lifestyle. What would you do? How would you react? Would you follow along? Would you walk away? Amidst the political satire that is the backdrop of Gila Green's novel King of the Class, these are questions that haunt long after you read the last word. New to the book scene, but certainly not new to providing us wonderful short stories, Ms. Green gives the reader much to ponder in this unique satirical novel set inside a much believable future.
The book starts with the question, "Where is Manny Meretzky?" In many ways that question runs throughout the entire novel. And question after question about the human condition cause the reader to stop and think.
The book introduces us to Canadian political science student, Eve Vee waking up in a seaside kibbutz in 2019. “She thinks how lucky she is to have found someone she can spend the rest of her life with...” While lying in bed thinking fondly of Manny and her upcoming wedding, Eve admires her engagement ring. It’s guaranteed never to get lost because she had a tracking beam attached to it. The ring may always be safe and sound, but in the next several pages we learn that her fiancé, Manny, is not so reliable.
It doesn’t take long for Eve to realize Manny isn’t in their apartment and he doesn’t respond to phone calls or text messages. No one she knows has seen him. In spite of these failed attempts to locate him, Eve maintains a positive outlook that he’ll turn up at the invitation shop where she is scheduled to meet him and her sister. However, Eve’s positive outlook is as fruitless as her search for Manny. Eve’s sister finally states the reality. “You’ve quit your job, flown halfway across the world, and gotten dumped.”
Later that evening Manny slinks home, but it’s clear to Eve that things have drastically changed. The Manny that captivated her three years earlier stands in front of her but in many ways is still missing. He stumbles over his words, but gets to the point when he says, “’Eve, I want be religious.’” Through Eve’s initial shock and confusion we learn this means Manny has been secretly studying with a rabbi and has decided he wants to become one.
This turn-of-the-screw in the plot sets us on a path we hadn’t expected. We even join Eve in putting the never-get-lost ring back in the box on her bedside table.
Green skillfully puts us right inside Eve's struggle to regain her footing. We work with Eve to view the situation from Manny’s perspective, but can’t help but ask ourselves the same questions Eve asks. We’re not limited to figuring out what’s going on with Manny and why. We also ask, What would I do if this happened to me? Would I try to become a different person for the sake of the relationship? Would I be willing to? The spontaneous life Eve once had is replaced with strict routine. Even the clothing Manny wants her to wear is at the opposite end of the spectrum of what she’s accustomed to.
Eve gives it a whirl and for a while we admire her tenacity. But the couple can’t find middle ground. Manny’s strength of conviction ends up being more than Eve can tolerate within her own ideas and they break up. But she’s stuck in school in Israel and has to figure out a way to maintain her status. So starts to look for a roommate.
This pitches us into another unexpected plot twist where we meet Ben, a future, unborn soul. Ben explains to Eve, “’I’m trying to tell you I’m not from this world. I don’t yet have a mother and I won’t if you keep looking for a roommate…I chose you as soon as you and Manny met. Yours are the names I submitted. There are no accidents in this world or the next, no resubmissions. You don’t know how long I’ve been waiting for a reincarnation.’”
This puts Eve under more pressure, particularly since she is inexplicably drawn to this child. Ben continues to appear to Eve, stating his case to be born to her and Manny. Eve tries to logically explain the apparition to herself, hoping she hasn’t lost her mind. At one point she even credits the visions to Manny as some scheme to get her to embrace his religious life. By including fantasy in the plot, Green successfully engages our imagination along with our introspection, developing a wonderful balance between the two.
Eve returns to the United States, but isn’t able to let Manny, or Ben, go. In the second part of the novel we return to the kibbutz and discover Eve and Manny together, complete with family. But the story, and the questions, are far from over. Has Eve really chosen Manny or did she choose Ben? In a very powerful second half, we learn of Eve’s tremendous strength of character and the lengths to which she, and others, will go for the sake of something they truly want, and truly believe in. Her attitudes and behaviors even reflect upon Manny’s own decision to lead a religious life.
Using masterful diction and dialogue, Green thoroughly explores all facets of how a single change within a relationship creates explosions within people. The explosions do not occur in a vacuum. They change everything around them. Roles, attitudes and perspectives are all touched. People have at least three choices when this happens. Accept them, reject them, or do nothing at all. Green examines the complexity of these choices within her characters and how they propel personal growth within them.
The tale is a wonderful mix that follows in the tradition of early Sheri S. Tepper novels. Well written and rich with literary devices that involve all the senses, Green has written a novel that puts us inside a world we become part of and are reluctant to leave at the end. While it is a political satire set inside a slightly futurist world, one does not have to be familiar with either of those genres to enjoy the book. Green does an excellent job of showing us time and place in subtle ways that don’t interfere with the plot. Since Green writes about universal themes with believable characters, the book has cross-over appeal.
An excerpt from Ms. Green’s novel can be read in The Times of Israel