Forbidden love and long-held secrets abound in Surasky’s (Rage Against the Dying Light, 2012) compelling coming-of-age novel.
For Jenny Thompson, the 1970s are merely the years in which she’s grown up; the freedom the time period offered women has not reached her rural home of Jerusalem, N.Y. Jenny has been brought up on a strict diet of values: marry young, marry well and stay away from outsiders. But she strikes up a friendship with the struggling Mennonite boy next door, Jake Martin, who wants to put himself through law school so as to follow his idealistic passions. But all Jenny’s mother can see is his shabby upbringing and how little he can provide for Jenny, so the friendship remains hidden, blossoming eventually into love on Jake’s part. But Jenny doesn’t return his feelings and opts instead to follow her mother’s insistence; she dates Bud, the golden boy of the town whose family’s wealth and influence are known and admired. Jenny soon learns, though, that following a script doesn’t always lead to happiness, and her traditional marriage suits her mother far more than it does Jenny. The marriage breaks down, and Jenny is now a single mother, living on her own in New York, where she learns about talents that she hadn’t pursued and becomes a successful businesswoman and artist. But loneliness beckons, and Jenny turns to dating, despairing that no man connects with her or makes her feel the way Jake did.
Eventually, Jake resurfaces in New York, and Jenny learns the beauty that comes with a second chance. Artfully portrayed with vivid descriptions, Jenny’s growth makes her an intensely likable, realistic character. Her rebellion against her mother’s prejudice adds an additional layer to this romantic novel that helps deepen and enrich the complexity of the central relationship. Jenny’s story not only echoes the archetypal tales of forbidden love, but it also illustrates the dangers of intolerance.
A quiet but moving story of one woman’s reclaiming her life.
Portland Book Review
Jenny lives in the pastoral hamlet of Jerusalem, New York. As she readies herself for her high school graduation, Jenny earnestly awaits the opportunity to capture her dream of becoming a great artist. Unfortunately, with the feminist movement having yet to significantly influence her traditional hometown, Jenny finds her dream far from her reach. She is forced to set aside her artistic aspirations in order to marry and assume a domestic role. Back to Jerusalem, the second novel by Jan Surasky, tells the story of how Jenny is able to strive for independence and find love and comfort in friends, family and her bucolic home.
“No matter where you wander, no matter for how long or how far away, home is forever embedded in your spirit, and in your soul.”
Perhaps the best way to describe the experience of reading Surasky’s novel is to say that it is akin to thumbing through a treasured family photo album. Though such an album’s contents could collectively span several decades, each page contains only fragments of family history, fragments selected for their particular beauty or significance. The narrative of Back to Jerusalem is similar to this because it too spans several decades, employing many time skips. The reader is presented with only fragments of main character Jenny’s life at large, but these fragments are certainly beautiful and significant.
One of the author’s greatest strengths is her ability to present the culture of the 1970s with honesty and frankness. She uses simple, yet effective language, and introduces her audience to a cast of complex characters. What is particularly impressive is the objective manner in which the more odious characters are presented like Jenny’s mother, who forces her into marriage, and Jenny’s husband, whose indifference and infidelity destroy their relationship. These two are not simply vilified, but rather portrayed as products of their epoch and culture, a very thoughtful and mature move.
Back to Jerusalem is also a thematically dense novel. It addresses issues of gender and social class but, again, its language is simple enough that it will not alienate casual readers. On the contrary, this novel is incredibly warm and welcoming, clearly the product of a sensitive heart.
Pacific Book Review
Jenny Thompson, the compliant daughter of "a successful Methodist farmer and owner of a tire store" in the small town of Jerusalem, New York, had hopes of becoming a famous artist someday. Her neighbor and best friend, Jake, the son of a poor Mennonite family, had a big dream, too, of becoming a lawyer. Because their future plans would take them to different locations, Jenny and Jake knew that their time together would draw to a close, especially since Jenny's overbearing and officious mother was certain that Methodists and Mennonites made a pitiable mix. Her mother, too, had dreams. A projected hope, she desired that her daughter would marry someone who could offer her a better social status than a farmer's wife. As luck would have it, her mother's wishes came true when Bud Anderson, the egotistical son of the wealthiest family in town, asked Jenny's hand in marriage. Giving up her dreams in support of her new husband's business, Jenny thought life would change for the better when their son was born. But when their marriage went on the rocks, Jenny had no idea that her new life as a single mom would not only leave her longing for the small town that she loved, but also her best friend.
Written in a third person objective view, Surasky compensates for reading character's thoughts with her own masterpiece of idyllic scenes, succulent plants, brilliant seasonal hues, and the beautifully earthy patterns that grace Jenny's home town. Back to Jerusalem tells the story of a girl who is an unwitting victim during a time when women understood their roles in a man's world and then breaks free to develop her own identity. Set initially in the 1970s, Surasky slowly but deliberately weaves twenty years of Jenny's life into a colorful tapestry, made up of the various strands of joy and struggle through the people and events that she encounters as she moves on following her divorce.
Though much of this novel is laced with Jerusalem's pastoral vistas that manage to gnaw at Jenny's unsettled thoughts, Surasky is equally skilled in developing characters, particularly the antagonists of the story that would provoke a reader to shout out expletives toward the domineering matriarchs, namely Mrs. Thompson and Mrs. Anderson. Mrs. Thompson's persistent nagging toward Jenny and the belittling remarks she makes toward her husband, coupled with Mrs. Anderson's flippant remarks toward Jenny are enough to make a person's blood boil. Fortunately, there is a plethora of positive characters, many of whom become Jenny's close friends. Yet with all the beauty of friends and family that surround her, the one that she keeps missing in her life is Jake.
An absolutely beautiful novel, Back to Jerusalem is a reminder to all of us that whatever you do, wherever you go, "home is forever embedded in your spirit, and your soul."
The US Review of Books
"No matter where you wander, no matter for how long or how far away, home is forever embedded in your spirit, and in your soul."
The story opens in the 1970s in the town of Jerusalem that is a part of New York state. It is far removed from the skyscrapers of the big city. Farms are a common sight in this rural area, and everybody knows everybody else. Jenny Thompson is a senior in high school who wants to go to college to study art. Her father is a farmer, and her mother frequently talks about how she gave up society living to marry. Her mother doesn't want Jenny spending time with the family on the next farm because they are Mennonite, therefore, different. But, that family has a boy, Jake, who is Jenny's age. She can talk to him better than to her own family.
Jake's feelings for her change to more than just friendship. She ignores that and marries the most popular and richest boy in school. They have a son but, end up getting a divorce. She and her son move to New York where she pursues her art career. She meets a lot of men, but none of them compare to Jake. A turn of events ends up reconnecting Jenny with Jake. He is no longer the Mennonite boy in overalls but has become a successful New York lawyer. Both of them go back to Jerusalem to help a childhood friend and receive a second chance.
Ms. Surasky captures life on a farm and in a small town community. It is a sweeping, fast read and leaves readers completely unaware that it contains sixty-one chapters. It's easy to sense Jenny's anxiety when she wants something different out of life. The transition between the farm and New York City, then back to the farm, is like racing to the finish line. This book is not only about the boy and girl next door, but also the different customs of the Mennonite and "English" people who populate these pages. Surasky has crafted a beautiful story that is simple yet powerful; one that effortlessly flows from the smell of wild flowers to the heat of city apartments and back.
RECOMMENDED by the USR
Hollywood Book Review
It’s a love story that seems doomed from the beginning. Two worlds apart, both wanting more out of life than what they are presented with, both influenced by their families strong beliefs, they take separate paths in life, relying on others telling them this is who they should be. Jenny, who wants a life of beauty and art, is too strongly influenced by her mother’s love of status and material possessions, while Jake, who yearns to go to school and practice law to help the poor, is caught between the world outside and his Mennonite faith. Best friends in their high school years, decisions, ones seemingly made mostly by others, separate them from each other.
Jenny must learn the hard lesson that material things do not bring happiness; that a life without love and companionship might look pretty to outsiders but leaves a cold emptiness inside. With the help of her Aunt, a rebel in her own right, and friendships she has kindled along the way, she is able to overcome this obstacle and establish a decent life for herself and her son, whom she devotes her life to. She even finds herself back at the drawing table, creating art and photography for the world to see.
Jake’s path takes him in a whole separate direction, a life as a successful lawyer who has all but forgotten his past and those in it. He finds, however, that this success can be taken in the blink of an eye and leave him with nothing to really call his own. Once again, the reader sees that a life of outward success and pleasing others does not always lead to joy inside.
While Jenny often wonders about her childhood friend and misses the special bond that they had, they are not reunited until a family crisis brings them back home and back to each other. The author created in me a strong desire to see them come together and I would admittedly have been disappointed if it had ended any other way.
Back to Jerusalem is an enduring love story, a love of soul mates, of friends, and of the safety of home. It teaches many life lessons while being a genuinely interesting read. The author did a good job of investing herself in the characters, in return causing the reader to want to navigate by their sides while the story unfolded. With vivid imagery and a knack for story-telling, Surasky has created a novel that we all can be drawn in to.