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When We Were Bad: A Novel [Paperback]

Charlotte Mendelson
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Nov. 1 2008
"'The Rubin family, everybody agrees, seems doomed to happiness'" Claudia Rubin is in her heyday. Wife, mother, rabbi and sometime moral voice of the nation, everyone wants to be with her at her older son's glorious February wedding. Until Leo becomes a bolter and the heyday of the Rubin family begins to unravel . . . 'As intelligent as it is funny. A beautifully observed literary comedy as well as a painfully accurate description of one big old family mess' " Observer" 'Fast-paced and engaging. Brilliant, touching and true' Naomi Alderman, " Financial Times" 'Absolutely spellbinding, so funny, so moving, so totally believable' " Jacqueline Wilson" 'Intelligent and witty. The Rubin family may be a singular one but the delights and the difficulties its members have with sex and spirituality, food and domesticity, expectation and achievement, will have a universal appeal' "Sunday Telegraph" 'Funny and emotionally true, this is a comedy with the warmest of hearts and the most deliciously subversive of agendas' Book of the Month, " Marie Claire" "When We Were Bad" is a warm, poignant and true portrayal of a London family in crisis, in love, in denial and - ultimately - in luck.

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From Publishers Weekly

With humor and panache, British writer Mendelson (Love in Idleness) presents London's Rubin clan, presided over by matriarch Claudia, a brilliant, charismatic London rabbi blessed with zaftig curves and a will of steel. Claudia seems to have molded nebbishy husband Norman and their four children into the perfect family. But as the plodding eldest, Leo, leaves the altar to run off with his mistress, the fault lines are exposed: next-eldest Frances eventually admits to her despair about her dutiful marriage and her lack of maternal feeling, and even colorless Norman turns out to have a guilty secret. Claudia, however, must preserve the myth of a perfect family because it's the basis of her about-to-be published memoir, a moral and ethical handbook for families of the new millennium. What makes Mendelson's novel especially naughty are her candid observations about the crouching, self-loathing way that many English Jews try to fit into Anglo society while simultaneously maintaining their traditions: Claudia's seder, for example, is a comic set piece of frantic preparation and grim hospitality. But while the social satire is deft, the action upon which Mendelson hangs it veers into farce. And with the introduction of imminent tragedy, the plot abruptly crashes. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

To all appearances, the fabled life of the Rubin family of London—with beautiful, brainy, and accomplished 55-year-old rabbi Claudia Rubin at the helm—is nothing but happy, until firstborn Leo abandons his bride at his wedding to run off with the wife of the officiating rabbi. But there are earlier cracks in this facade: younger children Simeon and Emily, approaching 30, still live at home, unable to make their way in the world; older sister Frances, to whom her siblings turn for help, is desperately unhappy in a virtually arranged marriage to a widower with two young daughters and is unable to love her infant son; and Claudia's husband, Norman, the appropriately less-successful spouse, can't tell his wife about the book he has written and sold. Mendelson, winner of the Somerset Maugham Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for her second novel, Daughters of Jerusalem (2004), is a keen observer of family life and of English Jewry, as experienced from within and seen from without, and she deftly blends humor and pathos in this portrayal of a family in crisis. Leber, Michele --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A really hard book to rate... June 23 2012
By Jill Meyer HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
British author Charlotte Menedelson gives us the Rubin family of Hampstead in her novel, "When We Were Bad". The family, super-star Rabbi Claudia Rubin - picture buxom beauty Nigella Lawson wearing a tallis - and her author-husband Norman, have raised together four children, all of whom are still part of the family, even at the advanced ages of early 30's and late 20's. Claudia is the firmament around which the other family members move and to whom they owe their love, livelihoods, and most of all, allegiance. "Rabbi Claudia" is the most famous, "out-there", rabbi in London and is a popular author, speaker, and...rabbi to her congregation in Belsize Park.

Claudia Rubin could be called a narcissist, I suppose; totally without a sense of humor about her family and world, she expects everyone to do and everything to be to her liking. Her four children, Frances, married to a widower and the mother of a young son; Leo, about to marry in a huge wedding, deserts his bride at the altar and runs off with the officiating rabbi's wife; Simeon, a young druggy and lay-about who adores his mother; and Emily, a late 20's woman who also can't get her life together. Norman is an habitually failed biographer, happy to let wife Claudia be the star in the family. Rabbi Claudia would like to present her family to the world as "perfect", but the reality of the situation begins to erase the perception.

Charlotte Mendelson's novel is a comedy-of-manners, though, as I write this review, I'm making the characters and the plot sound, well, grim. The plot covers a four or five month period in the Rubin family's life, beginning with Leo deserting his bride and ending a few nights after the Passover seder-from-hell.
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5.0 out of 5 stars And you think your family is dysfunctional... July 5 2010
Format:Paperback
I loved the total disaster that is this family. I found this book so real in its depictions of dysfunction within a family and how this familial dysfunction plays out in the individual lives of the family members.

It took me a while to get fully engaged in this book as the book is written from the perspective of multiple characters and it is often unclear at the outset which character is in focus. At first I found myself regularly going back in the book to clarify who was who and what I knew about them. Ultimately I found that this exercise served to deepen my connection to the characters. Once I was half-way through the book I felt like I was connected to the Rubin family and found the characters to be easily identifiable.

I think the depth of the author's character development is exceptional. It is not often that I cannot get a character out of my mind, and I continue to think about Frances. I miss Frances and am so glad to have had the chance to walk in her world.

I just cannot say enough how very much I enjoyed this book and how grateful I am to Mendelson for sharing the Rubin family with me. I look forward to reading more of this author's work.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 3.6 out of 5 stars  13 reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dysfunctional, enmeshed family headed by narcissistic matriarch May 30 2008
By Marron - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
SPOILER ALERT

This book is well written, and at times amusing, but quite exasperating in its depiction of the Rubin family. I disliked half the characters, and the least likable ones were so broadly drawn as to be unbelievable (e.g., a 27 year old woman in so many words telling her brother, who wants to live with his lover, "How could you? We all have to sacrifice our lives for mum's sake!"). As a therapist I found the level of family dysfunction and enmeshment not very funny at all. Was it supposed to be endearing, despite its quirks? Well, it wasn't!

Three stars for readability, and for giving us two characters who escaped (more or less).
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars When We Were Bad Nov. 11 2007
By Book Bag - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Have just finished reading When We Were Bad and found the story very entertaining and humorous. Great depiction of a family who appears to be "the perfect family" to outsiders, but when we see the family from the inside, is just as dysfunctional as many of us. Very clever writing.

Would recommend this book - definitely.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not easy to characterize Dec 31 2007
By algo41 - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is not easy to characterize, and that is one of its strong points. It is the story of a dominating woman, her children and her husband who have all suffered from this domination, but it is also what I call a feel good story, thanks to its outcomes; it is also a social satire and even a comedy. Francis at one point is behaving strangely, but she is only dimly aware of this, "no more than of the thick gray dust crushed beneath the wheels (of the train), the gray mice trembling against the track as the train races past into darkness". Mendelsohn is not a particularly good prose stylist, but the quoted material is from an author who sometimes expects her readers to laugh with her at her characters and their weaknesses and situations.

The dominating woman is a Rabbi, and her professional life certainly adds interest to the story, though theology plays no real role. I think Mendelsohn goes a little overboard with the 2 younger children, and I think an editor could have eliminated Simeon with good effect.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Very easy to read. Oct. 6 2013
By Janine Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The story of a headlining female British Rabii and her family is one of laughter, tears and eccentricities. I'ts also about keeping up appearances in a family that is expected to show it's best side to the world at all times and even to one another if that can be managed.
At the beginning of the book a crisis occurs and the fought for façade of the perfect family is shaken. Read on as you wonder what will happen as more cracks appear- will the family implode or learn to relate with realism?
There's a lot going on in this book and yet it's very simply written, no flowery words, a more economical style. Not something I usually go for but it works well.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A really hard book to rate... June 23 2012
By Jill Meyer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
British author Charlotte Mendelson gives us the Rubin family of Hampstead in her novel, "When We Were Bad". The family, super-star Rabbi Claudia Rubin - picture buxom beauty Nigella Lawson wearing a tallis - and her author-husband Norman, have raised together four children, all of whom are still part of the family, even at the advanced ages of early 30's and late 20's. Claudia is the firmament around which the other family members move and to whom they owe their love, livelihoods, and most of all, allegiance. "Rabbi Claudia" is the most famous, "out-there", rabbi in London and is a popular author, speaker, and...rabbi to her congregation in Belsize Park.

Claudia Rubin could be called a narcissist, I suppose; totally without a sense of humor about her family and world, she expects everyone to do and everything to be to her liking. Her four children, Frances, married to a widower and the mother of a young son; Leo, about to marry in a huge wedding, deserts his bride at the altar and runs off with the officiating rabbi's wife; Simeon, a young druggy and lay-about who adores his mother; and Emily, a late 20's woman who also can't get her life together. Norman is an habitually failed biographer, happy to let wife Claudia be the star in the family. Rabbi Claudia would like to present her family to the world as "perfect", but the reality of the situation begins to erase the perception.

Charlotte Mendelson's novel is a comedy-of-manners, though, as I write this review, I'm making the characters and the plot sound, well, grim. The plot covers a four or five month period in the Rubin family's life, beginning with Leo deserting his bride and ending a few nights after the Passover seder-from-hell. During that time, the children and Norman "find" themselves, in word and deed, and Rabbi Claudia's life is never the same. But, it really shouldn't be, as the reader finds out.

This book is a tough one to rate. I found it 5 star delightful but others won't. I didn't mind putting up with Rabbi Claudia and her narcissism but then I like characters with an edge. If you're thinking of buying this book, please read all the other reviews. Most are valid, I think. Then choose.
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