THE TENDEREST OF STRINGS
by Steven Schwartz
Regal House Publishing, 260 pages
reviewed by Ellen Prentiss Campbell
Steven Schwartz’s new novel The Tenderest of Strings is the story of a marriage and a family in trouble, an exploration of how family ties constrain and sustain, stretch and snap. Reuben and Ardith Rosenfeld and sons Harry and Jamie are recent transplants to Welden, Colorado. They moved from Chicago, “looking for a small-town cure and a fresh start” to Reuben’s professional struggles, Harry’s emotional and social problems, Jamie’s asthma, and increasing distance in the marriage.
But rather than providing a geographic cure, the move to this small town exacerbates the Rosenfelds’ problems. There’s no synagogue. Their Victorian house is a money pit, and so is the financially strapped local paper where Reuben is editor in chief. Jamie’s asthma is worse. Harry is sullen. Ardith and Reuben haven’t made love in months.
There’s an adage in fiction writing, “No trouble, no story.” Schwartz, author of two prior novels and four story collections, knows his way around stories, and families. The Rosenfelds’ troubles rapidly get worse. As a writer, I was interested by the efficiency with which the author introduces their predicament and prepares the ground for what follows.
The book opens at a moment of crisis, in the emergency room. The chief of police, Reuben’s “erstwhile lunch companion” in this small town where everybody knows everybody, found Harry wandering the state road, face bloody, a tooth knocked out. Reuben presses his son to say who attacked him and why he was out of school. Harry shuts down. Ardith takes off with the boy for the dentist. Later that night, Harry in his room, tooth tenuously in place, the parents argue, full of shame and blame about what they are doing to each other and their sons.
From those first scenes, Schwartz ramps up the stakes and tension rapidly, using short chapters usually from the point of view of Reuben or Ardith. Present action and crisis are interspersed with brief revelatory memories and back story. Well-chosen small transgressions signal bigger problems. For example, the family attends a huge birthday celebration for a new friend. Ardith is wearing a too-tight red dress. She’s furious the expensive outfit she’d intended to wear is in the town dump because Reuben thought the bag of dry-cleaning on the porch was trash. The party includes competitive drinking and hot sauce shots. Everyone they know or want to know is there, including the popular “Dr. Tom,” Ardith’s tennis partner.
During this raucous, wonderfully distracting scene, Schwartz subtly lays the fuse for the explosive event that occurs after the party, rocking the family’s personal world and reverberating with serious consequences throughout the community. No spoilers, but it’s a different surprise than the one the reader anticipates, and soon followed by another twist. As a writer, I found myself making notes in the margin, studying Schwartz’s deft and strategic technique. The gravity of events, the occasional big coincidence, and the ripping pace of the action could approach melodrama. But here most of the drama results from individual choices, impulses, miscalculations, and mistakes. Also, and importantly, the authenticity of what happens and how it plays out, is shaped by where the story takes place. The town of Welden—its geography, economy, architecture, customs, and culture, becomes a composite character. The townspeople, their circumstances, their generosity as well as prejudices, influence the explosions and the aftershocks. The Rosenfeld family troubles intersect with complicating community events. This impacts others, including Luisa, one of Harry’s few friends and the point of view narrator of the novel’s most significant subplot.
The American-born daughter of Mexican parents Luisa cleans houses after school with her mother. Her father works for the local dairy farmer who hosted the birthday party. Despite their hard-won security, financial precarity and the shadow of ICE threaten Luisa’s family. The Rosenfelds are in trouble but soon Luisa’s family is in peril. The two families’ predicaments intertwine. Finally, a personal decision and a public action by Ardith Rosenfeld provides an earned surprise in this character driven, well plotted novel.
For all the twists and turns and action, this novel’s greatest strength is the compassionate rendering of the challenges of family life, and of life lived in community—ordinary lives under ordinary and extraordinary pressures.
The tender strings of the title, the ties of family love and obligation, remain tangled for the Rosenfelds. Although at the end the degree of acute crisis has abated, Reuben, Ardith, and Harry remain in different kinds and degrees of trouble. Reuben cautions himself not to promise his son that “everything would be okay. It probably wouldn’t.”
Reuben doesn’t promise what he can’t deliver, but he’s determined to “rake out the muck from his own stall of pessimism every day.” Nor does Steven Schwartz disappoint with a simplistic ending. The resolution is tentative but illumined—like the entire novel—by hope.
Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s novel Frieda’s Song was published in May 2021; her story collection Known By Heart appeared in 2020. Her debut novel The Bowl with Gold Seams received the Indie Excellence Award for Historical Fiction; her story collection Contents Under Pressure was a National Book Award nominee. Ellen practiced psychotherapy for many years. A graduate of The Bennington Writing Seminars she lives in Washington, DC, and Manns Choice, PA. She is at work on a new novel
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