There wasn’t one major reason that made me wanna read Kitty Veldis’s 2018 historical novel Not Our Kind when I spotted an available copy on Overdrive. Instead, there were several minor ones. One, Amazon described it as having “echoes of Rules of Civility and The Boston Girl.” A copy of Rules of Civility has sat on my shelf for years and I’ve yet to touch it but know I should. Two, while I haven’t read Anita Diamant’s The Boston Girl, I enjoyed her earlier novel Day After Night and essay collection Pitching My Tent: On Marriage, Motherhood, Friendship and Other Leaps of Faith. (I’m embarrassed to say I’ve owned a copy of her mega-bestseller The Red Rent for years but never read it.) Three, seeing it’s set in New York City a couple of years after the conclusion of World War II and features a recent college grad who happens to be Jewish looked like a good lead in to Moses Rischin’s 1977 book The Promised City: New York’s Jews, 1870–1914 from my 20 Books of Summer. But reasons aside, I’m glad I took a chance Not Our Kind because I enjoyed it.
One New York City morning in 1947 recent Vassar grad Eleanor Moskowitz is taking a cab ride to a job interview when another cab rear-ends her. Shaken up and now sporting a bloody lip, she scrambles to find a payphone to cancel the interview. Upon returning to the scene of the accident the passenger in the other cab, Patricia Bellamy, takes pity on Eleanor and invites her back to her elegant Park Avenue apartment to wash up. Over lunch served by the Bellamy family’s Polish cook she hits it off with Margaux, a usually troublesome 13 year old polio survivor. Impressed by Eleanor’s demeanor, intelligence and recent experience as a teacher at an esteemed girls’ school Patricia offers to hire Eleanor as Margaux’s private tutor. Taken aback at first, she’s soon won over by both Margaux’s enthusiasm and the position’s generous rate of pay.
Such an arrangement looks like a win-win, but in 1947 it’s fraught with risk. Eleanor is Jewish, and an undeniable undercurrent of antisemitism permeates America, including its largest and most cosmopolitan city. Either subtly or not so subtly it’s always there, jaundicing relations between Gentile and Jew. Each morning Eleanor must give her last name as “Moss” to the incredulous doorman in order to enter the Bellamy’s “restricted” apartment to teach Margaux Latin, Shakespeare and mathematics. Worst of all, she must contend with Patricia’s husband Wynn and his antisemitic prejudices. But despite these challenges Margaux blossoms under Eleanor’s gentle and talented tutelage.
Before long Eleanor finds herself swept up into the Bellamy’s orbit. Like a non-native species introduced into a fragile ecosystem her presence begins to upset the family’s uneasy balance, exposing dark secrets while also helping create enriching possibilities. All of this unfolds against the backdrop of a New York City that, in the years following the end of World War II is emerging from Europe’s shadow to become to the new global capital in art, culture and business.
Not Our Kind is great follow-up reading to Dan Fesperman’s novel The Letter Writer (also set in NYC and just a few years earlier), Chaim Potok’s classic American novel The Chosen, and Stephen Birmingham’s excellent “The Rest of Us”: The Rise of America’s Eastern European Jews. With rich attention paid to the era’s fashion, music and sexual mores Not Our Kind beautifully captures the zeitgeist of mid-century big-city America. So far in 2022 I’ve encountered a number of surprisingly good novels. Not Our Kind yet another one.