I *think* Invisible City (Rebekah Roberts #1) by Julia Dahl (Minotaur Books, 2014) ended up on my list during the time I searched for Jewish books in my library’s digital card catalog, but I could be wrong. I’m a member of a few different book groups on Facebook, so it could have come from there. Either way, it ended up on my list as an ebook, and I dragged my feet long enough that my library no longer had it listed as an ebook. Bummer! (And I’ve got a new attitude about how quickly I’ll get to ebooks on my list.) Interlibrary loan to the rescue!
Rebekah Roberts is a young reporter on the beat in New York City for one of the city’s rattiest tabloids. She’s the daughter of a Christian father (who raised her) and a Hasidic mother (who split and returned to her community not long after Rebekah’s birth, leaving Rebekah angry and bitter and confused), and when she’s assigned to the story about a dead body discovered in a scrapyard, she’s on it…and is even more intrigued when she finds out the victim was a young Hasidic mother, and the scrapyard is Hasidic-owned.
The police’s chummy relationship with the Hasidic community means the investigation barely gets off the ground, and thanks to a friend of her father’s, Rebekah finds herself deep in the search for the truth. What happened to Rivka that she ended up dangling from a crane in a scrapyard? What did her insular community have to do with the circumstances that led to her death? And what does all of this have to do with Rebekah and her mother?
I have mixed feelings about this one. I don’t read a ton of thrillers and crime novels (and I’m absolute garbage at figuring out whodunit), but I tend to enjoy most of the ones I do read. I enjoyed the pacing of this story; it moved quickly but without keeping me anxious and on the edge of my seat, which I can’t stand. The writing was fine; I didn’t find it anything phenomenal, but it was readable without having to think too deeply, which I appreciate. I’m not much of a literary fiction reader; when I dive into fiction, I’m doing it to be entertained, not to discuss the themes of the book with a group of professors at a wine and cheese party.
The setting was interesting. There aren’t a ton of novels out there set among the Hasidic community, so that felt fresh, but Rebekah’s lack of curiosity about the Judaism she inherited from her mother was a bit irritating to me. Her anger at her mother was understandable, but her almost complete lack of knowledge (despite her dad being some sort of religious scholar), felt…off.
What didn’t work for me was the disrespect I felt towards multiple groups in this book. Let’s start with the Hasidic Jewish community. These are people living their lives in the way they think is best. I disagree with a lot of what they believe and teach, but they’re still my people, and it irks me a bit to see them placed in such a fishbowl. There are many, many problems in the community (as happens in every insular group out there), but to me, this felt like all those books setting romances and thrillers in the Amish community: exploitative. It felt more to me like this community was the setting for a grisly murder of a young mother more for the shock value than anything, and that bothered me. Especially since this is a series and there’s another Hasidic murder in the next book. This bothered me a lot as I got deeper into the book.
Secondly, the constant use of mental illness as a reason for violence really bothered me. I’m not saying that the Hasidic community does a great job dealing with mental illness; from what I’ve read, a lot gets swept under the rug for fear of making families look bad and ruining chances of children making good marriages (sigh). But mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of serious crimes than to be the ones committing them, and perpetuating this stereotype that mentally ill people are often violent and go around constantly murdering people…nope. Didn’t like that one bit. And there’s a LOT of references to mental illness in this book that didn’t quite hit the mark for me as a respectful, thoughtful way to discuss these conditions, even in a community who doesn’t necessarily have a perfect track record in how they handle it.
So this book had its ups and downs for me. I likely won’t continue on with the series, though I am curious what happens if/when Rebekah makes contact with her mother. If you’ve read the series, feel free to spoil this for me in the comments. ; )