Friday, September 19, 2008

Review - My Name is Asher Lev

My Name Is Asher Lev My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok

I've heard good things about Potok's "Chosen" and it sounds like that's his book that most people have read. I enjoyed his style here and I suspect I'll pick up The Chosen to read later.


Before commenting on anything else, I need to comment on the theme and content of the book.

This book is deeply entrenched in the Jewish culture and has many references that are likely very commonplace to those in the Jewish culture, but were very foreign to me. I got the general meaning of most things from context, but I still have a long list of terms, phrases and actions to look up and better understand.

This book also has a lot of great detail about the art world. This is another realm in which I am an inexperienced traveler. I had a better understanding of art than Judaism, but there were still numerous names, periods, phrases and theories that I didn't understand directly.

One suggestion that I would make which added huge depth to me, is to Google the names of the various paintings/sculpures/artists that are referenced and that Asher studies intently. Some are more important than others, but just seeing what it is he's seeing and experiencing brought a huge new depth to the book.


Obviously, Asher is the main character. He is a very deep character with a ton of internal conflict and a lot of passion which he doesn't understand or know fully how to direct. His development throughout the novel was very subtle. I found it very interesting that he was portrayed largely as a pawn in his own life. A few times, he tells his father that he "can't control it", meaning his art. In much of the "dialog" that happens between Asher and most characters, he is largely a character who isn't directing the actions of his world. He is often silent and lets others make their assumptions and their decisions. And yet, through that silence, he imposes his will on those who are closest to him.

Asher's parents are also very lucid characters. Asher's mother is passionate and very torn between her devotion to her husband and to her son. The final climactic work of Asher truly captures his mother's character. His father was also very well portrayed. I found myself frustrated with him at times but also sympathizing with him. There was a section where Asher tries to explain art to his father, going into the technical artistic terms and phrases. That scene was a very profound description of the huge disparity between their two worlds.

The other characters in the book were largely there as tools either for Asher's own development or for exploring the gap between Asher's two worlds, art and Judaism.


There were times that I would have liked the story to pick up the pace a bit. The descriptions were great (very artistic) and the depth that the scenes gave to Asher and his family and friends was huge. I'm not sure what scenes I would have cut or tightened up, but there were times that I would to have liked it to speed up a little.

The plot itself was intense. The novel was divided into "books" outlining different parts in Asher's life and development. Each "book" built on those before it and none of the sections came to a final "conclusion" or at least to a "happy ending." Even though I would not like to see them split into stand alone books, looking back, I see that as a possibility. They each had their own rising action, climax, and hint of resolution. And together through the course of the novel, they provided an overall rising action, with the final book having the greatest climax before the final "resolution."


Even though this book focussed on conflict between art and Judaism, it goes much deeper than that dynamic. I found myself relating many times to things that Asher would say or think. He was conflicted between his religious heritage and the "carnal" world. He was conflicted between respecting his parents and becoming his own person. He was conflicted between Tradition and Growth. He was conflicted between two things that were both "good." So much of his character development embodies principles that apply to us all.

The story and the writing was very interesting and thought provoking. I enjoyed reading it. The final climax made my soul churn as I realized there was no "happy" way for things to resolve. I'm not one to beg for happy endings, but after getting so attached to Asher, I had hoped that things would turn out better. Still (not to spoil the end), things didn't end up as grim as they could have done. I believe Potok wrote a second book about Asher Lev. I may have to read that as well to see what becomes of him beyond this novel.

The reading isn't "heavy", but the tone of the book is heavy. But Definitely Recommended.

3.5 Stars

View all my reviews.

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