Places like Washington D.C. and New York City get a lot of attention as urban centers. So much so that their suburban surroundings are often overlooked or derided. The late New York City mayor Ed Koch queried, “Have you ever lived in the suburbs? … It’s sterile. It’s nothing. It’s wasting your life.”
One author disagrees. Michelle Brafman grew up in Whitefish Bay and now lives in Maryland, teaching at the Johns Hopkins University Masters in Writing Program. Her new book, Bertrand Court, contains 17 interconnected short stories set in a cul de sac in suburban DC. In the book, behind manicured lawns, picket fences, and carpools hides the range of human joys and miseries.
She centered on fictional Bertrand Court because, "there's so many television shows and movies that focus on the sexier parts of DC...[yet] there's so much going on in the suburbs where you feel the reverberations of the power and the excitement of DC, but people are just living their lives...They're just kind of regular people, and I thought that would be nice to show a different side of DC than what's often portrayed in the media."
The book focuses on the lives of the Jewish Solonsky family and their in-laws, and Jewish life and culture plays a large role in the book.
"Those are some of the lives that I've been exposed to that are interesting to me," says Brafman. "But there are also stories that don't have any Jews in them, and those were really interesting to write - when I was looking at a Jewish life from the perspective of someone who is not Jewish."
Characters make repeat appearances throughout the stories, and different stories may have distinct perspectives on one character. In one chapter, "Georgia and Phil," Phil is portrayed as somewhat of a playboy whose friend lets slip that Phil thinks of Georgia, his girlfriend, as "that woman who does your laundry for you."
In the next chapter, Phil runs into Amy Solonsky, a woman with whom he also has a romantic history who happens to be pregnant. He is kind, attentive and respectful.
"This whole exercise of writing this book expanded my heart in a big way," states Brafman. "When you know the back story of someone and you can really see them from different points of view, you understand where they're coming from. So now even in my every day life, if I run in to a conflict with someone, I'll say 'Hmmm... I wonder how their story might look through [a different] person's eyes.'"
"We have these disparate pieces of our selves - the ugly part and the beautiful part and the stingy and the generous, " she continues. "What I want people to walk away with in seeing these different characters is the understanding that we're just really complex and some of the people who can drive you crazy are the people you end up loving the most. We have to accept these different pieces of ourselves and of the people that we love."
Brafman will be speaking about her book at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center on Sunday April 2 at 4:00 PM.