My Name is Asher Lev

My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

I read this for the second time when it was chosen for our Book Club and and though I still can't say I liked it, I did get more out of it this time.

Asher Lev is a young Jewish boy with a passion for art. He is enormously talented, but his family and religious leaders consider his gift a hindrance to him both morally and spiritually. Growing up he's in constant conflict, trying to be true to his faith and to his art, causing considerable turmoil in his family. He is eventually introduced to a famous artist who will become his mentor and help him develop his skills, an arrangement to which Asher's father strongly objects. Over time the boy becomes successful, his paintings are shown in a distinguished gallery and subsequently purchased at high prices, but these same paintings cause much suffering in his personal life, damaging the relationships that are most important to him.

Though I didn't particularly enjoy the story I am glad I gave it a second shot. I was fascinated with Potok's writing and spent some time looking at how he kept the tone so consistently dark and ominous feeling. The words he chose, the short, abrupt sentences, and the state of tension he kept us in (always expecting some tragedy or another) created an unsettling mood from the beginning to what was for me, an unsatisfying ending. I understand there is a sequel now, so some questions might get answered there, but I don't know at this point if I want to read it.

In the second half of the book there's a lot of discussion about art and artists. There were so many names I didn't recognize that I decided a little art history education was called for, so I looked up over two dozen of them to have a look at their work. In the process I became a bit more familiar with various styles - is the correct term eras, schools, genres? - of art: Baroque, Impressionism, Post-impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Impressionism and others. I still may not know a lot about art, but I'm more sure of what I like and what I don't like now and why, so I guess I'll be satisfied with that.

This is a book that seems to generate intense opinions for and against but I don't feel strongly about it either way. I'm iffy about the story but I did get a lot out of it the second time through. If you've read it I'd love to know your thoughts, pro or con, so please do post your comments.  


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