Library Director’s Notebook
Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, by Natasha Solomons might seem at first glance to be a light- hearted and amusing novel. Certainly there is plenty to smile about in the story of Jack Rosenblum, his wife Sadie and their baby daughter Elizabeth who as Jewish refugees from Germany in 1937 find themselves in London, grateful to have found sanctuary. From the very beginning Jack is eager to fit in, to learn everything he can about being a perfect Englishman.
Despite Sadie’s worries and doubts, Jack throws himself into the rigors of assimilation, following, as if a revered bible, a pamphlet he is given when arriving in England entitled “While you are in England: Helpful Information and Friendly Guidance for Every Refugee". The rules make it clear that everything Jack had been in the past, German speaking, emotional, and warmly social would be discouraged in England. Though bemused, Jack is determined and sets out to be even more English than the English.
The results are mixed at first. Little by little Jack learns to speak English, though with an accent. He reads British newspapers, listens to the wireless, enjoying especially the weather reports, even does the Times crosswords faithfully. As an experienced and skilled businessman he establishes a highly successful carpeting firm and does all he can to help in the war effort. With financial success comes beautiful handmade suits, an expensive car, and a nicer place to live. True, Sadie is increasingly unhappy with his attempts to jettison his Jewish identity and friends and to” fit in”, but Jack assumes she will eventually understand the need to become more English herself. What really frustrates Jack is not his wife’s growing unhappiness, but his own inability to gain membership in that most British of institutions, a private golf club.
With the war over and Jack having achieved considerable wealth, he assumes that golf club membership should be no problem. What he hasn’t understood is that his adopted country, though allowing him sanctuary, has not really embraced him or any of his Jewish compatriots. Prejudice, at times painfully obvious, and more woundingly, often unspoken and subtle can be felt by even the most insensitive immigrant, trying to make his or her way in post-war England. Jack finds that he cannot buy his way into any British golf club, no matter how hard he tries.
His solution? Not to give up, for Jack is not a quitter. Instead Jack reasons if he cannot get into a club he will build his own golf course and offer memberships to the very British who denied him membership in their clubs.
Jack’s pursuit of his passion, or what might more truthfully be called his obsession, soon begins to wear heavily on his marriage, his friendships, and quite destructively on his prosperous business which he neglects and drains of cash to the point of bankruptcy. His English neighbors are skeptical, suspicious, and at times even treacherous as they strive to nip his dream in the bud. Meanwhile Sadie suffers, not exactly silently, but deeply and dangerously, as the hurts and losses of the past refuse to leave her alone and threaten to destroy her. While we are tempted to cheer for Jack and his insatiable desire to fulfill his dreams, we often become exasperated by his total lack of comprehension and compassion regarding the suffering and sadness of his wife.
Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English might easily have been a lightweight confection with a storybook ending. Instead it has the heft and seriousness of a nourishing meal, balancing humor with seriousness and pain with pleasure, in the way a good cook might balance sweet with bitter. In the end I think most readers will feel that spending time with Jack Rosenblum and his dreams is time well and fruitfully spent.