Raymond is a doctoral candidate writing a dissertation on Robert Burton's "The Anatomy of Melancholy" at the University of Toronto. Hannah, another Toronto resident, is going to Jerusalem in six days to study Torah at an Orthodox egalitarian Institute. The two hook-up at a party. Neither expects more than a one-night stand. But the attraction between Hannah and Raymond is an intense one and continues far beyond one night. They are passionate together, physically, emotionally, intellectually. They laugh a lot. In short, they're falling in love and have an extremely brief period of time to do so. They are aware and stressed by the limitations of their situation.
Raymond is an atheist. He expresses himself with irreverent humor, and eloquence, on Judaism, Christianity and Islam in a memorable passage, which I would quote here if it weren't so long. On the other hand, Hannah has trouble explaining her journey to Raymond, and to herself. "What it is is a program for North American almost-assimilated Jews like me, who are messed up about their Jewish identity and want to deal with it. And they tell you, this is what being a Jew is, and you are one. Oh, and here's how you do all the things that make you Jewish."
Their six days together take place in her sunlit attic apartment, bare now except for a bed, like an island in the middle of the room. They also spend some time at Raymond's place, a dark basement flat, and at a cottage on Enigma Lake, north of Toronto. Meals are shared at various ethnic restaurants, and in bed. They visit funky bars, drink wine, bourbon and crantinis, and explore each other's bodies, histories and minds. Can two people find true love in less than a week - a love which will endure nine months of separation - especially when one is a Jewish woman who is going to study religion in Jerusalem, and the other is an atheist "goy?" Or is this just a fling?
Most of the novel takes place while the two are apart. Their communication, and some of the narrative, is conveyed through a series of emails between Israel and Canada. However, in between their correspondence, the book offers vivid and convincing glimpses of both characters' lives. Hannah's euphoria at her spiritual and cultural development comes across with enthusiasm. She wants Raymond to visit Jerusalem during the last month of her stay, to see the extraordinary city for himself, and to learn about Israel. Both of them want to find out whether their relationship is still viable. Raymond's melancholia contrasts sharply with Hannah's exuberance. He is bogged down with his writing. Toronto is always dark and cold in winter and he, unlike Hannah, is not making new friends. Their polarities and irreconcilable differences are brought to the fore, just as their connection and similarities were initially. Yet, the couple remains drawn to each other, in spite of the impediments of geographical distance, culture and newfound, (newly made), personal problems.
Author Stephen Marche uses an interesting writing format for his novel. The margins act as a venue for a minimalist narrative which runs parallel to the main storyline. "Raymond considers Hannah's departure." "Hannah considers homesickness, desperation and loneliness in the past tense." "Hannah thinks about the name God." "Raymond address the peoples of the Book." It's a clever literary device that adds depth and wit to the novel. I wonder if Marche purposefully used the marginalia, because it so resembles Talmudic commentary.
"Raymond and Hannah" ("A Love Story") is a most compelling read. It is hard to believe this is a debut novel. A quirky, original, bold, love story, it is certainly contemporary, combining physical lust, spiritual longing, and intellectual quests, as well as a search for emotional intimacy. The landscape of Israel, its contrasts and contradictions, where the elements of modern life meet history, is beautifully, realistically, and often ironically depicted.