Experts’ Review of Sheila’s First Novel – “Simple Truths”
From: Michael Korda
Simple Truths is a story which celebrates life. Simply put, the theme is survival-survival based on a conscious determination to participate in life. Susan Warner, the protagonist, is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who unable to bear their burdens of memory and guilt, commit suicide several years after they emigrate to America. Her embittered mother has left her a legacy of madness and her tormented father, a legacy of defeat. Susan’s challenge is to discover within herself sufficient resources to over-come this painful patrimony. Before Susan discovers a few simple, life-affirming truths, she comes close to emulating her parents in their rejection of life. Susan is a contemporary woman and is burdened as well with the pressures of marriage, raising a child and dependence on men. Because she refuses to confront her own personal demons, she relies obsessively upon others.
Through a series of events linked to her professional work in the cause of Soviet Jewry, she emerges as a woman who discovers a way out of despair. She finds that she must learn to live with the complexities of a painful history on one hand, and getting on with life on the other.
Because I am a professional in Jewish communal life, I wanted to write a book in which I talk about Jewish identification. I was for many years the public information officer of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, during which time I coordinated the campaign to free the Soviet Jewish ballet dancers Valery and Galina Panov. I have travelled to the Soviet Union twice; both times meeting with Soviet Jews I hope that in Simple Truths I have confronted some of the romantic revision of both the plight of Soviet Jews and a certain attitude towards the Holocaust. Human beings, I believe, are in the last analysis, not defined only by tragedies which have been inflicted upon them over the years, but by their positive orientation toward life. Similarly, I believe that women should not be defined only by men. To some degree, all people are vulnerable to seeing themselves as others see them and seeking approval and love. That must not, however, become the essence of life for men or women, and that is one of the simple truths that Susan Warner discovers.
From: Publisher’s Weekly
What a pleasure that Sheila Levin is alive and writing in New York! In an often moving and skillfully constructed first novel, Levin explores the painful life of Holocaust survivor Susan Warner, who is trying to make a life in the present while coping with the darkness of her past. In addition to the nightmare childhood spent hiding in a farmhouse cellar, Susan must live with the suicides of her parents, both guilt- ridden over the death of their son in a camp. This past is compounded by a bad marriage that ends in a messy divorce and an obsessively passionate affair that nearly ends in tragedy. Against this inner turmoil, Susan is looking for salvation through her work with a group aiding Soviet Jews, a job that will bring her into contact with a dissident violinist trying to emigrate, Levin’s writing is often bitterly coarse, but only in reflection of the torment of Susan’s life. Perhaps not perfectly polished, this is nevertheless a fine debut, one with power and great feeling.
From: Crown Publishers, Inc.
Susan Warner, in her mid-Thirties and living in New York City, is divorced, with dance away lovers. The daughter of parents who survived the Holocaust and later committed suicide, Susan has more than her share of Jewish angst. Susan survives, however, if only because she has a young daughter to support. She finds a job with an agency that is assisting Soviet Jews and becomes involved in the cause of an activist Russian violinist, Leonid Rabinovitz. With this commitment, Susan’s own sense of self is gradually strengthened.
This first novel has some loose ends and rough edges, but it also has vitality reminiscent of Erica Jong, and a powerful emotional base that sets it apart. Recommended for larger fiction collections.-Marsha G Fuchs, Gilford Free Lib., Ct.
From: Kirkus Reviews
“I have lived my life just missing… A myopic shooter, my sight lines are always skewed.” In this scouring, tensile first novel, Manhattan-raised Susan Warner, daughter of Holocaust survivors who committed suicide, rummages for a firm ground, a psychic core-in a live savaged by her parents’ grief and bitterness, their obliterating deaths, and her own restless lust for intimacy and connection. “My body has never been my enemy…. This is not the case with my mind…. I want to be loved, liked, stroked, telephoned, and listened to, wined, dined, adored, and respected-to be central.” So Susan looks for a center in a cause-that of persecuted Russian-Jewish violinist Leonid Rabinovitz; and, while packing to leave on a rescue mission to Leningrad, She recall her problematic past. Her father, who always advised her to be an “observer”, not a participant. Her mother’s tales, miasmic with grief and horror. Ex- husband Sam, whose dullness and kindness were a shield against Susan’s emotional jagged edges. Her lover, married lawyer Jason, who withdrew when Susan, seeing the promise of “centrality” in all- consuming sex, became obsessed with him. (“Obsessed people are ridiculous….There are no dignified obsessions.”) And the lure of suicide that came with the loss of Jason: “I would be reunited at last with my own kind.” Now, however, having revived at the last minute and lied her way out of a mental ward, Susan works for the International Committee for Soviet Jews. And, in the wake of dissident violinist Rabinovitz’s probably-doomed gestures, Susan finds a simple truth, something real that “transcends the disarray of my life”: she plans her mission to Leningrad-where there are people to save, and a Jewish family-history that Susan is now ready to accept. Not with standing some hammering excesses (especially in the shrill, push-button sex scenes): a tough debut, full of punishing punch and wiry movement, by a promising talent.
From: Los Angeles Herald Examiner
This affecting book in very self-assured for a first novel. Its heroine, a New York woman in her mid-30s, is not, Susan Warner obsesses about her insecurities, the overwhelming weaknesses that afflict her as the daughter of concentration camp survivors, the hurt of being alone, the sense that the whole world, including herself is divorced. She could be a one-woman Holocaust. What saves Susan and prevents this novel from becoming just another diary of a maddening housewife is her involvement-post break-up with lover and suicide attempt-with an International Committee for Soviet Jews and her efforts on behalf of a dissident Jewish violinist. Memories of Nazi Germany make two periods of Jewish victimization stand side-by-side to chilling effect and what we normally gather from newspaper accounts about the Soviet Union is turned into compelling fiction. The larger political concerns help balance Sheila Levin’s skillful but claustrophobic portrait of acute self-centeredness. They transform a search for identity into a saving struggle against both private and public disaster. Celia Betsky
From: The Houston Post
In Simple Truths, Sheila Levin’s first novel, Susan Warner’s family survives Hitler’s Germany, but her parents are both guilt-ridden. Her mother with whom as a child she had many conversations, brilliantly reproduced in the novel, fears only that she may forget the murders of the rest of the family, which occurred while she and Susan were safely hidden in a farm cellar. She also feels guilty for having accepted the farmer’s advances and, perhaps falsely, accuses her husband of seducing young women. “Men stink,” she advises Susan.
The father, a French Resistance fighter, feels guilty for his son’s death in a Nazi roundup of partisans. As a concentration camp doctor he may also have participated in tortures. Both parents commit suicide, the mother after a long bout of madness. This summary, however, does not quite do justice to the poignancy of Susan’s growing up in New York with such parents, nor to her devotion in the novel’s present time to the cause of Soviet Jews.
We meet her as she’s on the brink of flying to Russia on behalf of a famous Jewish violinist hounded and Imprisoned for playing Israeli music at a concert. His letters about intimidation, systematic deprivation and starvation are as impressive as Susan’s reminiscences.
But for most of her more or less adult life, Susan has been looking for a “man who will save me.” First she marries eager Sam, who only wants to do for her, and who encourages her dependence. They have a daughter-unfortunately a rather shadowy character. Then she divorces Sam and takes up with Jason. The reader is treated, if that the word, to detailed accounts of their lovemaking. Want some tips on how to drive your man wild?
This part of the story-the female, independent, sex obsessed, masochistic, depressed, – has been told so often in the past dozen years that the reader can anticipate the turns??. Moreover, Levin
doesn’t forge an affective link between sexisms and anti-Semitism, although her heroin is a victim of both.
Nevertheless, what Susan must learn to accept about herself, and life is quite impressive. In her father’s words, “I did not make the world, I fought against it, I saved many lives. But still, I cannot escape a sense of shame and guilt. I wanted to transcend evil. In the end all I did was to survive.” Susan inherits his determination to save lives and after she passes through her own flirtation with suicide, her instinct for survival seems solidly at work, Self-preservation and racial preservation go hand in hand.