Dear Thursday: SIMA’S UNDERGARMENTS FOR WOMEN by Ilana Stanger-Ross [Book 5 of 2011]

Since I moved to a walking neighborhood, I haven’t reviewed a car book (a book I listen to in the car) in forever. The last one was back in the fall of 2010. But thanks to a series of IVF appointments, I recently managed to get through an entire car book. So here are my thoughts on SIMA’S UNDERGARMENTS FOR WOMEN by Ilana Stanger-Ross.

Why I Decided To Read It: Well, this was basically a brain fart. I somehow ran across this audiobook on my library’s catalog and I vaguely remembered one of my favorite book bloggers, Reads4Pleasure liking it. But as I would later find out when it came time to write this report, her review was decidedly mixed as is mine. Reads, if I were you, I’d definitely have words with whoever recommended this as a beach read.

What It’s About: Sima, an infertile bra-whisperer owns a popular undergarments store in a Jewish neighborhood and is married to a plodding, retired school teacher named Lev.  The addition to her staff of a beautiful, vibrant shop assistant named Timna changes her and her life in ways she never would have never foreseen.

What Makes It Different: I’ve read too many books that treat infertility with a shrug and a line about how a couple can’t have children, most often not bothering to explain why. I found it refreshing and fascinating to see a woman going through the infertility process in the 60s, especially since a few of the tests are still the same, and also because, unlike say PRIVATE PRACTICE, the testing happened in real time, over the course of months — as opposed to the few hours or days allotted to it in movies and on television.

What I Loved: Well, I didn’t know that infertility would come up in the book, so it was a really pleasant surprise, being able to go through almost an entire IVF cycle with this book to keep me company. The writing is mechanically quite good. Also, I liked hearing about so many Jewish customs.

What I Didn’t Like: I did not understand Sima. But perhaps I am not meant to. She complains a lot, and she treats her husband terribly in my opinion, picking on him and taking him for granted. It should be noted that I’m not one of those women who gets upset about wives who nag or women who don’t treat their husband’s with “proper” respect. I’m almost always Team Wife — but in this case, I felt her treatment of Lev was particularly egregious. But upon further thought, I decided that this accusation might be unfair. Perhaps what I disliked most about Sima is that she is nosy, judgmental, doesn’t say what she wants, seems to expect other people to read her mind, and is very, very passive aggressive — in other words, like so many women I’ve known and have met in real life. She might have been too real for my taste.”

Besides that, the narrative dragged. It’s technically well-written, with small bursts of attention-getting scenes that don’t fully congeal into an attention-keeping plot.

Writing Lessons Learned

Make everything count. I often found my mind wandering with this book. I thought about my own IVF appointments, plot points for my third novel, errands I still needed to run. But then when I came back to the narrative, I would find that I hadn’t missed anything at all. I think writers — even literary writers — should aim to keep a readers attention. Another writer once told me that if her attention wanders during a chapter, then she knows her reader’s will, so she either cuts the scene or makes it interesting. Great advice.

Accessorize your little black dress. Stanger-Ross has a very interesting device of using short scenes, in which Sima’s customers from all walks of Jewish life buy undergarments. These scenes provide fresh perspective and perk up an otherwise wilting story.

Don’t explain your ethnicity. I often find myself receiving the same note from a few readers/critics. “But  what does this say about race? She could have gone further with the racial aspects of the book.” What’s interesting to me about this SIMA’S UNDERGARMENTS is that it didn’t stop to explain any elements of Jewish culture that I might not have been familiar with. Orthodox women come in wearing wigs — if you don’t know why, then you’ll just have to figure it out. Never heard of a particular Jewish holiday? — oh, well, then you’ll have no idea why these characters or celebrating it the way they are. Don’t get the cultural difference between Israeli Jews and American Jews — ah well, then Timna’s whole Israeli army back story and need to seek out other Israelis might be lost on you. I loved that these characters didn’t explain themselves to non-Jewish readers. They just were exactly who they were, trusting us to figure it out.

To Whom Would I Recommend This Book: Williamsburg Residents, Women Dealing With Infertility, Husbands and Wives Looking For A Guide On How NOT To Handle Infertility As A Couple, Non-Jewish People Who Always Wondered About That Popular Jewish Neighborhood Shop…

Click on the pic to buy the book!