Why She Married Him
Set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this novel begins with the marriage of Nina Schavranski to Abraham Podselver, an ardent socialist, in Paris in 1912. This brief section is followed by one that concentrates on their courtship (if one could call it that). The next sections depict Nina’s early life in the Ukraine, continuing up to and just beyond the wedding. Nina’s family, who is Jewish, struggles to achieve a comfortable lifestyle in Yekaterinoslav. Her father and mother own a tailoring business, and life is good until the pogroms make life untenable for them. Once in Paris, they must start again, but, despite hardships, their life is a refined one.
Chapman has a good eye for details, and her descriptions can give a vivid impression in just a few words (“The cafés, doors open to invite a late afternoon public, exude a vinegary darkness”). The historical setting and details are the great strength of this novel. The nascent socialist movement is illuminated through Nina’s friends. Nina, her younger brother, and most of all Abraham, do not completely cohere as characters: I felt I never really understood them, whereas Nina’s mother and father are more completely and sympathetically drawn. Abraham is most unpleasant, so for this reader the book took flight only after the sections in which he appeared. The structure of the book, starting with the somewhat perplexing marriage, and then working backwards to earlier periods, is intriguing and worked well for this plot. After finishing the book, one does have a somewhat better idea of why Nina married Abraham, though it ultimately remains puzzling. Chapman explains in an end note that she has tried to recreate the world described by her grandmother in a manuscript, imagining the sections connected to her grandmother’s courtship.