If God is good and loving, why does He allow so much suffering? Why does God let our loved ones die but allows others to live and prosper? Why does He remain silent and leave our most urgent prayers unanswered? These are the faith-testing questions posed in Lynn Austin’s latest historical-fiction novel, While We’re Far Apart.
Set in a Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, in 1943, three characters’ stories intersect as World War II progresses and life on the home front becomes more and more difficult.
An elderly Jewish landlord, Jacob Mendel, grieves the death of his wife in a car accident, as his son, Avraham is trapped in a war-ravaged Hungary. 12-year-old Esther Shaffer is angry at her father, Eddie, who decides to enlist in the army right after the loss of his wife. Penny Goodrich, desperately in love with Eddie, volunteers to take care of Eddie’s children in hopes that he will eventually return her love and marry her.
Jacob isolates himself from the outside world, spending most of his time listening to the news and searching for the whereabouts of his son. Penny takes on the challenging responsibility of raising resentful Esther and Peter, while starting a new job as a bus driver. Without the presence of her parents, Esther experiences loneliness, the growing pains of a teenager, and the fear of losing her father to the war.
Though this novel starts off slowly, after about one third of the book, it becomes harder to put down. Unexpected situations in the neighborhood arise, and the three main characters start to bond and rely on each other for comfort and strength. Austin intertwines Avraham’s letters to Jacob into an ongoing story, which helps in building up suspense in the book. The subsequent subplots will make the reader curious about Penny’s real family background and her love interests.
Another strong point of this novel is the author’s vivid historical details that bring New York during World War II to life. Austin’s precise, riveting descriptions of buildings, people, clothing, and places will immediately draw you into the story. In one particular chapter, you can almost see and smell different types of candles and taste the dishes as if you were there with the characters. If you like to learn about new cultures, this book is rich with Jewish jargons, customs, and traditions. The Shabbat feast, Hanukkah, and Purim celebrations are fascinating additions to the story.
Austin lets her characters grow and develop nicely. Readers can easily identify and empathize with their flaws, worries, and problems. While I find self-conscious Penny to be predictable and at times monotonous, Jacob is an intriguing, more likable character with more depth in his personality and character. Jacob’s grumpiness, depression, and bitterness at God are portrayed well in the story.
The title, While We’re Far Apart, is suitable since the novel’s main theme is about waiting. The characters wait — for the atrocities to be over, for their loved ones to return from war, and for God to answer prayers. Life is full of tragedies and disappointments, but faith is believing even when you cannot see the whole picture. Amid suffering and loss, we may never fully understand God’s plans and purposes, but we are asked to trust in His goodness and continue to wait for Him.
While We’re Far Apart is an enjoyable read that finishes with a surprise ending. I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys a historical novel with memorable characters and an uplifting message.
About the Author
Sukalaya Kenworthy is a senior library assistant at the Westport Branch. To join the Inspirational Book Group , e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org  or call 816.701.3488 for more information. The group meets the third Wednesday of the month at 4:30 p.m.